Probation for Two Gunmen Reversed but Perhaps Too Late
A judge who had enraged prosecutors by granting probation to two gunmen who nearly made off with $1.3 million in diamonds in a violent robbery attempt reversed himself Wednesday, but prosecutors fear the action may have come too late.
On the strength of a legal argument advanced by the district attorney’s office, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Everett E. Ricks Jr. revoked probation for one of the men, who had pleaded guilty to armed robbery, and instead sentenced him to four years in state prison.
But the other defendant, who had entered a guilty plea to a more serious charge of trying to murder a security guard, failed to show up in court. Ricks then issued a no-bail warrant for his arrest.
“My fear is that he has left the country already,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Lucienne A. Coleman said of Akop Jack Mkrtchyan, 25, who was described by prosecutors as the mastermind of the Dec. 6, 1983, robbery attempt at a downtown jewelry store.
During the incident, Mkrtchyan and his partner tied up the store’s proprietor and scooped his diamonds into a shoe box. As they tried to flee, Mkrtchyan exchanged 11 shots with a 54-year-old guard who ultimately forced the gunmen to surrender.
Mkrtchyan’s attorney, Charles E. Lloyd, said in court that he had advised his client not to show up for Wednesday’s court session. Lloyd told the judge that he had expected that Ricks would simply schedule a hearing to consider the prosecution’s request to revoke Mkrtchyan’s probation and that a personal appearance by the defendant was not necessary.
But Ricks told Lloyd that he had ordered the county Probation Department, which retains jurisdiction over Mkrtchyan, to make sure the defendant showed up in court.
“He can’t waive his appearance,” Ricks said of Mkrtchyan. “I ordered him to appear.”
Lloyd replied, “My client never indicated to me that he was given notice to appear.”
Lloyd asked the judge to hold the arrest warrant until Monday to give Lloyd a chance to find his client and bring him to court, but Ricks refused the request.
“The thing that bothers me, your honor,” Coleman said, “is why Mr. Lloyd told his client not to be here today.”
Coleman’s co-counsel, Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael A. Yglecias, quickly added, “No one is accusing Mr. Lloyd of any misconduct. The issue at this point is where is Mr. Mkrtchyan?”
If he is found, Mkrtchyan faces a sentence of up to 11 years in state prison instead of the year in Los Angeles County Jail that Ricks imposed on Oct. 10 as a condition of probation. Mkrtchyan was released immediately because he had been in jail since his arrest.
Ricks, who is described by prosecutors as usually intolerant of violent crimes, did not explain during last month’s sentencing hearing why he had decided to grant probation to Mkrtchyan, a Soviet Armenian emigre, and his accomplice, Gary Krikor Gulesserian, also 25.
In court documents filed Wednesday, the district attorney’s office contended that Ricks’ action was illegal because both men, as part of their guilty pleas, admitted that they had used a firearm during the commission of the robbery.
A section of the California Penal Code specifically forbids judges to grant probation to anyone who uses a firearm to commit certain felonies, including robbery.
In a 1979 decision cited by the prosecutors, the California Supreme Court ruled that judges have no authority to strike gun-use allegations from guilty pleas or verdicts, as Ricks did for Mkrtchyan and Gulesserian.
On the basis of their argument, Ricks revoked probation for Gulesserian, who was in custody, serving a six-month term in jail that Ricks had imposed as part of his probation. The judge then sentenced Gulesserian to two years in state prison for the armed robbery and added two years for the use of a gun.
Ricks, however, did not revoke Mkrtchyan’s probation, apparently believing that he did not have the authority to take that step in the defendant’s absence, Coleman said.
As a result, prosecutors early next week will seek an order from the state Court of Appeal directing Ricks to vacate Mkrtchyan’s probation and resentence him, Coleman said.