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Many question why Laguna Beach rug merchant wasn't charged sooner

Police say sex assaults happened over a four-year period. Residents and business operators ask why it took so long to make an arrest.

September 21, 2011|By Richard Winton and Joanna Clay, Los Angeles Times
  • Saeid Boustanabadi Maralan, 53, has been arrested on charges of sexual assaults in a Laguna Beach store.
Saeid Boustanabadi Maralan, 53, has been arrested on charges of sexual… (Laguna Beach Police Department )

Along Laguna Beach's artsy Ocean Avenue shopping district, Sirous & Sons Rug Gallery has long been a destination for tourists and weekend shoppers looking for Persian and Middle Eastern rugs.

But in the back room behind the elegant rug-lined showroom, authorities said, the store's manager sexually assaulted at least seven women over the last four years, including several customers. He is also accused of sexually harassing a teenage intern at the store.

Saeid Boustanabadi Maralan, 53, was arrested earlier this month, and Laguna Beach police are now investigating whether there are more victims.

As more details have emerged about the case, some who live and work in Laguna Beach's downtown have grown angry about why it took so long to arrest Maralan.

Police began investigating allegations of sexual assaults at the store more than a year ago but said they could not build a case until very recently. During this period, they said, at least two other people reported that they were attacked.

Neighbors said they were shocked to learn that Maralan was a registered sex offender with several sexual assault convictions in Los Angeles County. They question why police didn't inform them of his history after the first allegations surfaced.

"Everybody that has come in has been so angry that it took so long to arrest him," said Agnes Dougherty, a bookkeeper at the Marine Room Tavern, which shares a wall with Sirous & Sons.

The case has become the talk of downtown Laguna Beach, a few blocks of restaurants, art galleries and boutiques that is just ending its busy summer arts festival and tourist season. It's a close-knit area where residents and merchants feel they know one another.

"It's sad that something like this would happen in our little town," said Helga Sommer, who works across the street at an Italian ceramics shop.

Faced with the criticism, Laguna Beach police said they did all they could to arrest Maralan as quickly as possible. They described it as a frustrating, slow-moving investigation hampered by uncooperative witnesses. They said they even tried, without success, sending two undercover female officers into the store posing as customers.

"It was a tough case," said Lt. Jason Kravetz.

Maralan has pleaded not guilty to the charges. His attorney, Glenn Osajima, said his client has done nothing illegal, but he declined to comment further until he reviewed the prosecutor's evidence.

Police first learned of allegations in April 2010, when a customer went to police to say she had been sexually assaulted in the back room of the store.

The 40-year-old woman claimed Maralan took her into a storage closet where he grabbed and kissed her. As she tried to flee, Maralan allegedly pulled down her pants and attempted to rape her.

A month later, an employee told police that she was assaulted and raped by Maralan.

But as detectives began to investigate, the two women stopped cooperating and asked that investigators drop the case. Kravetz said one of the women stopped assisting police because she had a business relationship with Maralan. He said he didn't know why the second woman stopped cooperating.

Police continued to investigate but could not independently corroborate the women's reports without their cooperation.

Police said they sent an undercover female detective into the store posing as a customer, hoping to catch him in the act.

When that didn't work, police tried another undercover sting with a female officer from another department. "He asked her out for dinner and asked if she would go to Europe with him … but he did not make any sexual moves on her," Kravetz said.

After the sting attempts, police presented their findings to an Orange County deputy district attorney, who concluded there was not enough evidence to bring charges, Kravetz said.

Some Laguna Beach residents have questioned why police didn't interview Maralan or at least put him on notice that he was under investigation.

Dmitry Gorin, a former sex crimes prosecutor in Los Angeles County, said it's not unusual for police to build a case in a sexual assault case before questioning the suspect or informing the public of the investigation. "But once you have two or three victims, it may be time to serve a warrant or do something in case he strikes again," he said.

Laguna Beach detectives were aware of Maralan's history as a sex offender. In 1999 he was convicted of indecent exposure and sexual battery on one woman and battery on another woman in L.A. County. He initially was sentenced to 120 days in jail but, because of probation violations, he subsequently received a one-year sentence, according to Los Angeles County prosecutors.

In 2003, Maralan was found guilty by a jury in Bellflower of sexual battery on two other women and sentenced to six months in jail and three years' probation.

Nonetheless, Laguna Beach detectives said they did not have sufficient evidence to move forward.

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