Shushan Eloyan, a 22-year-old immigrant from Soviet Armenia, was walking to a Glendale grocery store on a summer day in 1989 when a man approached her from behind, tapped her on the shoulder and threw acid in her face, leaving her blind and disfigured.
Emad F. Kalta, 21, of Hacienda Heights pleaded guilty last May to charges that he was responsible for the shocking attack.
But the case did not end there, because investigators concluded that Kalta barely knew the victim and had no personal motive to harm her. His confession ultimately led police to arrest the victim's former stepfather and stepbrother last summer.
And in an ongoing trial in Pasadena Superior Court, a prosecutor is attempting to prove that these defendants--Ara K. Topalian, 55, and his son, Carlo A. Topalian, 21--set up the attack.
The two former Rowland Heights residents have each been charged with aggravated mayhem and conspiracy to commit aggravated mayhem. Their trial, which began last Friday, is expected to last about two weeks.
"Our theory is that Ara planned this, due to his hatred of Shushan for the breakup of his marriage," Deputy Dist. Atty. Nancy M. Naftel told jurors in her opening statement. "His son, Carlo, assisted him in that."
On Tuesday, Eloyan testified about the attack, wearing a black dress and dark glasses. Scars left by the acid were visible on her face. Although an Armenian interpreter stood by, the woman, now 25, answered the attorneys' questions in terse English.
She said she was on her way to the market in 1989 to pick up a check that Ara Topalian offered to her mother. Eloyan said a man asked her for the time, then "splashed me with fluid." She was assisted by neighbors and later paramedics as she tried to run home to her mother, she testified.
The woman, who said she studied English, art, theater and music in the Soviet Union, showed little emotion as she recalled the attack, saying only, "I couldn't advise it for anyone else."
Eloyan said she was hospitalized for three months after the attack and has undergone surgery several times. She has been able to see "nothing but light" since the incident, she testified.
The lawyers for the Topalians have vowed to attack the credibility of Naftel's key witness, Kalta. They have alleged that Kalta, who faces a maximum penalty of life in prison but has not yet been sentenced, implicated the father and son in a bid for leniency.
Naftel told the jurors that Kalta "pleaded guilty with no promises made as to what his sentence would be." But the prosecutor added, "He has hopes, obviously, of getting something less than the maximum."
Kalta has told authorities that the Topalians went to Glendale with him on the day of the attack and lured Eloyan to the supermarket by promising her mother the check to help her and her mother with living expenses.
During a preliminary hearing in September, Kalta described Carlo Topalian as his best friend. He testified that he was not paid to throw the acid. Instead, Kalta said he feared that Ara Topalian would harm him or his family if he did not carry out the attack.
Defense attorneys said last week that Kalta's confession is the only evidence that places the Topalians in Glendale on the day of the attack. "Mr. Kalta is an out-and-out liar," Christopher C. Chaney, Ara Topalian's lawyer, said Friday.
Carlo Topalian's lawyer, Forrest B. Smith, told jurors that Kalta "lied numerous times to police about his involvement. . . . When he knew he had no way out, he went into business selling testimony."
The defense attorneys raised doubts about Kalta's credibility on Tuesday when they asked two of his friends how Kalta explained his own facial burns. Investigators said they were caused by some of the acid, which splashed back during the attack on Eloyan.
But the friends testified that Kalta told them he was burned when a car battery exploded while he was helping a woman on the freeway.
"You knew he was lying, didn't you?" Chaney asked Timothy A. Witt, a friend of Kalta and Carlo Topalian.
"I'm sure he was," replied Witt, 20, of Hacienda Heights.
But Witt also provided damaging testimony when he recalled an evening in 1988 or 1989 when he and Kalta visited the Topalians. With Carlo Topalian translating, Ara Topalian offered to pay $5,000 to $10,000 to the visitors if they would throw acid in his stepdaughter's face, Witt testified.
Although they disagree about Kalta's credibility, none of the attorneys involved in the case have denied that angry family relations existed prior to the attack.
Ara Topalian and Lyudmila Lalayan, Eloyan's mother, met in 1963 in Soviet Armenia but went on to marry and have children with other spouses. Both were divorced by the time they met again when Ara Topalian, who was living in the United States, returned to Armenia for a visit in late 1987.
They married in 1988, and Ara Topalian moved Lalayan and her daughter into the Rowland Heights apartment he shared with his son and daughter in June, 1988. But the stepchildren did not get along, and by the end of the year, Eloyan had moved out. Her mother soon followed, and the two shared an apartment in Glendale.
The family friction escalated. In the spring of 1989, Lalayan began divorce proceedings and obtained a restraining order aimed at keeping Ara Topalian away from her and her daughter, investigators said.
Lalayan told authorities that Topalian had sought a reconciliation and offered the $1,000 check that Eloyan was on her way to pick up at the time she was attacked on July 16, 1989.
After the incident, a glass jar used to carry the acid was recovered, and Kalta's fingerprint was found on it, Naftel said. The prosecutor told jurors that Kalta had been told to throw acid on whichever woman arrived to pick up the check.
"Ara Topalian was very upset about the loss of his marriage," she told jurors. "He vowed revenge."