COLUMN ONE : Garment Business's Two Years of Terror : The victims of the 'Carole Little Murders' were industry success stories. But a string of threats and their brutal deaths make many wonder how risky the trade might be.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The first time her home was bombed, Karin Holzinger wanted to believe a stray cat had strewn the dirt and bricks from the flower box outside her bedroom.

The explosion itself didn't even wake her, not with the sedatives she had been taking since those phone threats and the bullet into her Mercedes--all that coming after she began firing sewing contractors for the Carole Little clothing company.

Now, in the early morning darkness of Sept. 7, 1993, a neighbor had to rouse her to report the blast outside her Long Beach home. And it took police to explain how, no, the damage wasn't caused by a cat--but by a repacked World War II grenade that, luckily for her, had bounced off her bedroom window and fallen into the planter.

Only then did Holzinger connect all the dots: from her job assignment firing the sewing contractors to the threats to the freeway shooting to the bombing.

"I'm German, I'm pretty tough," she said. "But I was freaking out."

And the carnage was yet to begin in what would become known as the Carole Little Murders.

Over the next 20 months, three people would be killed, two wounded and Holzinger's home bombed again. The victims would all have links to the stylish women's clothing firm and the dead would all be shot in their cars: the hard-working Armenian American sewing contractor, ambushed in his Mercedes in Glendale; the production vice president, a giant of a man who liked to sew, gunned down at a red light; the quiet Filipino American comptroller, ambushed in his Mercedes, at an intersection near the company's Los Angeles headquarters.

Two years after it began, the series of crimes poses perhaps the most chilling mystery facing Southern California law enforcement agencies. The investigation now includes the FBI, police from Glendale, Los Angeles and Long Beach, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

There has been only one arrest--of an alleged hit man who is charged with just one killing, and who no one believes was the mastermind of any of them.

"There is something wrong here," said Glendale police Sgt. Jon Perkins. "There has to be a common thread."

In this case, the "thread" weaves--literally--through one of Southern California's top industries, the $20-billion garment trade.

The lives of the victims were vivid reminders of how that industry has provided rags-to-riches opportunities for generations of immigrant groups. But their deaths were reminders of how cutthroat it is, this business that reaches the peaks of glamour on the backs of sweatshop labor.

The victims were executives of Carole Little and one of its contractors. Yet, much as Holzinger did not grasp what had happened at her home, some at the company--and in law enforcement--long resisted connecting the bloody dots. Hoping the crimes were unrelated, they groped for other explanations: Might one have stemmed from a love triangle? Another from a traffic dispute? Another from embezzlement?

"There's always doubting Thomases [who] think this happens only in movies," said Perkins. "They don't want to believe it"--that someone out there might be systematically killing people.

The best clues so far come from the one arrest. It suggests that the earliest incidents, at least, may be tied to the flip side of the immigrant success stories: ethnic organized crime, in this case in the Armenian American community.

But the accused hit man, Karapet Demirdzhyan, is charged in only the first murder and could not have committed the others--he was in jail. And with his trial about to begin, he's not saying anything.

Nor are the cops going to learn anything from the friend Demirdzhyan kept calling from prison, Gurgen Odjakhian, a burly karate expert. He was shot in the head in the middle of the mayhem.

Two years after it all began only one thing is clear: Whoever was behind the killings is still at large.

So the survivors protect themselves with guns, guards and barbed wire.

No one has tighter security--or gropes more for answers--than the company's multimillionaire First Couple, renowned designer Carole Little and her husband, Leonard Rabinowitz, the CEO. The "rag" trade has brought them a private jet, a pair of mansions above Beverly Hills and a spot on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous."

How could this be happening to them?

"I've heard of people getting killed over bootleg liquor, drugs," said a flabbergasted Rabinowitz. "[But] people do not get killed over, 'Make me 5,000 blouses, here's your check.' "

"If this is the case," he said--and he is finally starting to believe the grim likelihood--"this is the first time I've ever heard of someone getting killed over sewing."

A Family Legend Foreshadows Success

It became part of the lore in Leonard Rabinowitz's New York family how an uncle got his big break in the biz:

Uncle Dave walks into Macy's slipper department and asks, "What are your 10 largest sellers?" He buys them, peels off the labels and puts on new ones--with his own company's name. Uncle Dave then marches upstairs to see a Macy's buyer, claims these are his samples--and offers to supply them for a price just a bit lower than the store was paying.

The punch line: "He got an order for 20,000!"

And the obvious lessons: Someone will try to knock off any product you make if it sells. And someone will always look to undercut you by a few pennies and put you out of business.

Rabinowitz knew all this when he headed West in 1969, at 21, but it did not deter him from going into the rag trade. He sold handbags, tried his own garage-based sportswear business, then joined an established firm--in part because he noticed one designer, a shy blonde with mussed hair. "I thought when I saw her there, 'Yeah, this seems interesting,' " he said.

Carole Little was the daughter of a Sears shoe executive--Slippers? Shoes? Was this destiny or what?--who had graduated from fashion school then plunged into the profession in the era of hot pants.

She was nine years older than the boyish division manager with curly red hair, but it became a classic pairing of opposites: she the creative genius, he the "suit," a business and computer whiz who made no apologies for cultivating a "taste for making money."

In 1974, they borrowed $20,000 from his family to form their own firm, California Fashion Industries, to launch a Carole Little line. They had to wait only a year for their break--Carole Little's version of the Uncle Dave story:

During a trip to France she wandered into a men's store and bought a big silk shirt with two flap pockets and epaulets. Back home, she knocked off a version for women, in four colors. Lauren Hutton, the top model of the day, by chance was photographed wearing one. Bingo! The "Lauren Hutton shirt" exploded off the shelves.

Stores such as Saks and Bullock's embraced Carole Little's designs, which were described as perfect for "women intent on scaling the corporate ladder," as women began doing just that. Later, garment experts would list Carole Little among the firms that led a 1970s and '80s renaissance in the Los Angeles apparel industry.

Before long, she was making gowns for the Oscars and the couple were mainstays of Westside society, pals with show biz legends such as Gregory Peck. They hosted charity affairs and Robin Leach found them a natural for his "Lifestyles" spotlight.

Even when the romance faded a few years back, the business partnership endured. They kept side-by-side offices at the firm's headquarters, and if they lived apart--well, all that meant was that they each had a jaw-dropping estate in Benedict Canyon. His was across the canyon from Valentino's, hers next to Kareem Abdul Jabbar's.

"I've been fortunate," Little summed it up, "and haven't had that many tough times."

Until the 1992 riots, that is.

Their headquarters at Main Street and Martin Luther King Boulevard was looted and torched, suffering $11 million damage.

When rebuilt, it included high-tech surveillance and heavy metal fencing and 40 armed guards. Little and Rabinowitz got home security, too, and bodyguards to drive them to work. If riots broke out again, they'd be ready.

A year later, however, they learned the limits of such precautions. That's when guards were assigned, for far different reasons, to an employee--Karin Holzinger.

Threatening Calls, a Shot That Missed

She grew up in a peasant household in Bavaria and learned to work a sewing machine at 14, part of an apprentice program. As it turned out, she could not have done better with a Ph.D.

By 21, she was in management and a sportswear company sent her to Vermont to help start a line of ski clothes. In 1991--20 years later--she joined Carole Little as a veteran who could look at a shirt and tell how many cents it cost to put on the pocket.

Her title was vice president, domestic production. Her salary: $150,000, plus $25,000 in bonuses.

The guts of the job was dealing with contractors. That was because Carole Little, like many clothing firms, is not really a manufacturer but a designer and marketer.

The clothes are made by Southern California's thousands of cutting and sewing shops. Some are garage-based, others factories, but there is one constant--cheap immigrant labor.

Still, when Holzinger joined Carole Little, recession-plagued stores were pushing manufacturers to trim costs even more. So her mission, she said, was to " 'flush out' non-performing or expensive contractors" among the 45 the company was using then.

Within months, she had pared away a dozen or so. And "there was never a harsh word," she said.

Even so, her position was among the most high-pressured in the trade. With contractors hired job to job, they compete so feverishly it is common for them to offer lavish gifts--or kickbacks--to executives who dole out the work.

State and federal regulators, meanwhile, demanded that sewing shops not make a mockery of wage and safety rules.

Rabinowitz was almost paranoid about avoiding scandal. Friends kidded him for overpaying the staffs at his and Little's mansions: their six housekeepers got overtime, health insurance, the works.

So Rabinowitz took it seriously in June, 1993, when the U.S. Labor Department admonished 157 local apparel firms, including his, to stop doing business with contractors who violated minimum wage laws.

It gave new impetus for Holzinger to further pare the list. She sent "13 or 14 letters . . . cutting people off," she said.

Now, Long Beach police began receiving her reports of annoying phone calls.

Holzinger said some contractors pleaded openly, "Why me?" or said, "You're taking food out of my children's mouth." But other callers did not identify themselves.

The morning of Sept. 2, 1993, she was driving to work on the 91 Freeway when she heard a "bang." She assumed her Mercedes had a flat. She saw a man staring at her from another vehicle. She guessed he felt sorry about her tire.

When she pulled over she found a hole in the rear door and a bullet behind her seat.

She spent Labor Day weekend recovering from the incident, and planned to return to work that Tuesday. She never made it.

At 2 a.m. the grenade blasted her planter.

She would complain later that the company did not take the attacks seriously enough. At the moment, though, everyone agreed she should take a "rehabilitation" leave. The firm paid for two guards at her home. A security camera was installed.

Long Beach police listed the next threat Sept. 12, a call "telling her to leave the country."

On Sept. 16, the firm paid her way to Germany to get away for a while.

When she returned, she paid for a guard herself. But when he was really needed, police said, he was asleep in his car.

The security camera caught the outlines of the haunting scene at 2:25 a.m. on Nov. 3, just hours before her scheduled return to work. A sedan moves slowly by, returns and stops. A man gets out, runs toward the house and hurls something. There's a flash. The lighting, however, makes it impossible to see his face.

Police described the result as "Damage to the front door, patio . . . Home was firebombed."

The good news? Three attempts--and not a scratch on her. Either someone was merely trying to scare her--or she was incredibly lucky.

Just how lucky became clear hours later at the Long Beach police station. There, detectives got news of a crime that night on the other side of the county.

When Holzinger heard the victim was one Jack Antonyan, "I thought something had split my head," she said.

Antonyan Brothers: 'Following the Dream'

His first name was Hakop and his brother's was Garnik. But in America, they went by Jack and Gary.

The Antonyan brothers had solid jobs in Soviet Armenia; Jack as an industrial planning manager, Gary teaching college math. In 1980, though, they decided it was worth "taking a chance," as Gary put it, to start over in a free country.

Here they drove catering trucks.

Gary was 32, Jack 26. With their mother, wives and children, there were eight in their little group of emigres. All living in a Hollywood apartment building,

Their "lunch truck" routes in the San Gabriel Valley required long hours. "Until we came home it was already 11 p.m.," Gary recalled. "[We'd] take a shower, go to bed, [be] up at 4 a.m."

In 1983, the families opened a coffee shop on Wilshire Boulevard, staffed by the women. In 1985, they pooled their money to go into the sewing business.

"You know, for Armenians there is not much choice," Gary said. "Auto body . . . gas station, jewelry, groceries, dry cleaning. Sewing . . . What else to do?"

They began in Glendale with 60 machines and mostly Latino workers. Within a year, a fire ended the uninsured venture.

They reopened in a cinder-block factory along the railroad tracks that divide Glendale from Los Angeles. And in December, 1986, they got their first contract to sew blouses for Carole Little, which already was using a number of Armenian contractors.

They had to meet the firm's demands: Produce quality garments. Do it at the right price. And do it on time. "It sounds easy, but it's not," Gary said.

By 1988, both brothers were able to buy houses in the hills of Studio City. In 1989, they opened a second factory in Downtown Los Angeles.

In 1991 ("because we like this country") they became U.S. citizens. They joined 10,000 taking the oath at the Los Angeles Convention Center, rushed back to work and only at night shared glasses of wine to celebrate.

To Chahe Keuroghelian, the community liaison for the Glendale Police Department, the Antonyans were a classic immigrant success story, "people who came here following the dream step by step."

There were scores like them in the Armenian influx of the last 20 years, some fleeing hard times in Iran and Lebanon, others taking advantage of the lowering of the Iron Curtain. Some 250,000 settled in Los Angeles County, most often in Hollywood and Glendale.

California already had some prime role models for the newcomers, notably former Gov. George Deukmejian. But Armenian American leaders also candidly speak of an underside to the immigration--particularly concerning some arrivals from Soviet Armenia, "where in order to survive you had to do everything possible, whether stealing, black market [dealing] . . . or pushing people out of line," Keuroghelian said.

Gary Antonyan noted it too, as some looked enviously at him and his brother, who by 1993 were driving a Jaguar and Mercedes. These others would ask, "Why does he have what I don't?"

The talk of the dark side is cryptic. Just hints. Gary Antonyan denies at first that he and his brother sensed tensions with other contractors. He has to be asked directly whether Jack, for instance, took to carrying a gun.

Then he says yes--"after the attempt to kill Karin," the freeway shooting.

"Like this gun," he adds, pulling out his own pistol.

The brothers knew Holzinger well because they were among the winners as she consolidated Carole Little's contracting--as other shops were cut, their orders rose. Their firm sewed up to 50,000 garments a month, making it Carole Little's second-largest contractor.

But while Holzinger reported phone threats, no one sent any such warning to the Antonyans, Gary insisted. "Our message," he said, "is only bullets."

To be sure, he thought it odd when he noticed two men who "look like Armenians" in a car across from his home on Oct. 29, 1993. Car trouble, the men told him--but no, they didn't need help.

On Nov. 2, the brothers did not leave the Glendale plant until 8:30 p.m. As they reached their cars, a man in a white Chevy drove by, then came back.

"He stopped in the middle of the street," Gary recalled. "I wondered maybe person wants to ask us something."

He walked toward the Chevy, "but I saw man is crazy. And he pull out the gun. . . . I turned back and said to my brother, 'Run!' "

That's what Gary did. Run. But after the first two shots, he turned again. He saw that his brother had instead lunged into his new black Mercedes--and even managed to ram it into the Chevy.

But the gunman "came out from his car and . . . continued shooting," Gary said. "That animal got out and shot my brother through the car window."

As he describes it two years later, Gary Antonyan chain-smokes Marlboros and uses a pencil to jab holes in the cigarette pack.

The gunman had driven off by the time the ambulance arrived. Jack was still alive, but unable to speak. Gary was holding his hand. "If you hear me just squeeze," he pleaded, and swore his brother did just that.

At 9:28 p.m., Jack Antonyan, 39, was pronounced dead at County-USC Medical Center.

It was the next morning, as Glendale detectives questioned the victim's family, that a grieving Gary Antonyan mentioned how Holzinger, their main contact at Carole Little, had also "had a couple of problems."

So the Glendale cops phoned their Long Beach counterparts, told them of the night's murder, and got their news--how the second bomb had just gone off at Holzinger's home.

Glendale police sent out a bulletin classifying the killing of Jack Antonyan as a "professional hit." And Perkins said his every instinct told him, "It would not be the last."

One Arrest, Many Questions

The white Chevy, a 1980 Malibu, was found in no time, abandoned near the factory. And not so professionally: inside were 9-millimeter shells matching those at the crime scene and documents indicating that it had recently been purchased--though registered to someone else--by one Karapet Demirdzhyan, then 33, of Hollywood.

Later, relatives would tell how "Koro" had come to the United States in 1980--the same year as the Antonyans--with training in printing and a passion for Armenian folk dance; how he taught those dances to children; how "most of the time he would stay home," and how, while unemployed at the moment, he had held jobs, from driving a truck to once working for a sewing contractor.

Court records, meanwhile, suggested another side: a crack cocaine user with convictions for possession of a weapon and check fraud.

By noon on Nov. 3 detectives were at Demirdzhyan's home to ask about the Chevy and his whereabouts the night before. His sister said he had bought the car a month earlier, driven it 10 days and "then sold it." In fact, he had brought home another car the day before, a Ford, she said, "and we took one round trip for just one block and came home and had a good dinner."

The Ford was parked outside. It resembled the sedan videotaped pulling up to Holzinger's house.

Demirdzhyan was booked on suspicion of murder, his hands wrapped in paper bags so they could be tested for gunshot residue.

Could it all be solved that easily?

Hardly. Accustomed to a corrupt KGB, Soviet bloc immigrants viewed the American justice system as a joy ride.

"They're used to being beaten and coerced," Perkins said. "Here, you give them a drink and a smoke and they're almost confused. 'I'm under arrest for murder and you're giving me a Coke?' "

So it was with Koro Demirdzhyan. Led into Glendale's windowless interrogation room and told he faced life in jail, he shrugged, saying, "I don't care," detectives said.

And when police showed mug shots to Gary Antonyan, he picked out Demirdzhyan only as one of the men with "car trouble" outside his home--not as "the shooter."

Asked about it later at a preliminary hearing, Antonyan said, "I needed time. . . . I didn't know which way is better, to identify murderer or not yet. . . . I was thinking about family's security."

But his failure to identify Demirdzhyan as the killer had clear meaning for county prosecutors: They could not yet file charges.

So Demirdzhyan was released and police began tailing him. They rearrested him days later getting out of a taxi--with crack cocaine in his pocket. The drug charge allowed them to hold him again.

On Jan. 11, 1994, they paraded Demirdzhyan into a lineup. This time, Antonyan said flat out, "No. 3 is my brother's killer."

While prosecutors knew any defense attorney would attack the I.D., it was not their only evidence. Though the murder weapon was not found, the gunpowder tests on Demirdzhyan's hands came back positive. And his fingerprints matched ones in the Chevy.

On May 9, six months after the night of violence, he was charged with murder. Bombing allegations were dismissed--all the cops had on that was the fuzzy videotape.

Still, there were more questions than answers. What, for instance, was the motive? While relatives said Demirdzhyan once worked for a sewing shop, no one could quite remember the name--and he certainly was not on the books as a principal of any business.

"He can't be anything but a minor leaguer," said an attorney who represented Demirdzhyan at the time. "But there's something big going on in that case."

What, though? While Holzinger insisted that the mayhem had to be business-related, Carole Little executives were not convinced.

The company will not discuss it now, but Holzinger later filed a lawsuit alleging that its officials spread a false rumor that the violence stemmed from "an illicit extramarital affair" between her and "the murdered contractor Antonyan."

Her lawsuit complained that she was made a "sacrificial lamb" when she was fired a week before Christmas because she still was too shaken to return to work.

Rabinowitz saw himself in a tough spot. He did not want to seem callous, but competitors were hardly going to delay spring lines because someone was taking potshots at Carole Little--if that's what was going on.

Sure, "Karin did say there were a few smaller contractors . . . upset," the CEO noted. But no one had stepped forward with the strong-arm message you'd expect, like "From now on you're buying your buttons from us, mister!" Rabinowitz said.

What's more, the shooting stopped--for a year, anyway.

On Nov. 9, 1994, Gary Antonyan left the factory with his wife, Diana, driving a gold Acura. They noticed a stocky man at the curb. "The suspect removed a gun from under his coat," a police bulletin reported the next day.

Diana was hit in the shoulder and arm, Gary in the cheek. Even so, he found his gun and fired back. "The [gunman] was last seen running across the railroad track just west of the business," police said.

What were detectives to make of it: Contractor wars? Retaliation for Gary's role as a witness?

In an odd way, the new assaults were good news for suspect Demirdzhyan. His lawyer argued that he could not be behind all the violence because "while he's in jail, there are more shootings."

More, indeed.

From jail, Demirdzhyan was phoning his buddy Gurgen Odjakhian, a well-known figure in Glendale's Armenian community. At 6-foot-1, 220 pounds, he was married to the prettiest girl around, ran a silver business Downtown, gave spare change to the homeless and escorted young karate students to tournaments.

"Good guy, strong guy," one karate instructor said. "If somebody do something to you, he go and fix all your problem."

Glendale police described him as "an enforcer . . . a nose breaker."

"He used to be wild . . . but the last three years he was good," said an uncle, who runs a local body shop. "He was good all the time unless he had a couple of drinks."

Another relative recalled how Demirdzhyan kept phoning collect from jail to tell Odjakhian "he needs money, clothes, whatever."

The final call was to the jewelry shop on Dec. 8, 1994, a month after Gary and Diana Antonyan were shot. That evening, as Odjakhian returned to his apartment, someone apparently yelled to him as he reached the door. He turned--and took a bullet in the face.

Hundreds attended the funeral at Forest Lawn. Odjakhian's widow was disturbed by "these rumors and everything." Some said he died because "he knew something."

Still, there was no one theory. Because Odjakhian "messed with a lot of people," police said, they considered it possible his killing had nothing to do with the Carole Little crimes. But some friends were sure he paid for trying to help Demirdzhyan with people they both knew: perhaps trying to get his legal fees paid or using his knowledge of "someone else" behind the shootings "to get his friend off."

"It's like six, seven people close to each other, real close-knit," said one acquaintance. "They're not a real Mafia. [More like] friends protecting each other . . .

"Just one killing led to another."

The next came 11 days later.

Another Executive, Another Killing

The murder of Jack Antonyan had not deterred Kenneth Martin from joining Carole Little months later. The first time he made the rounds of contractors he offered Gary Antonyan condolences--then got down to business.

"He said, "I'm gonna do lots of changes,' " Antonyan recalled.

"I said, 'Whatever you do, Ken, be careful.' " But at 6-foot-5 and 280 pounds, he was not intimidated. And at 51, he knew lots about the rag trade--his life mirrored its evolution.

Of rugged French Canadian stock, Martin grew up in Massachusetts when smoke still spewed from New England's red brick textile mills. His mother had a small contract shop and he learned to sew as he learned to throw a baseball, then used that skill to woo his bride. "He made my clothes," Gerry Martin recalled, "and he made jackets for my sister."

As he finished college, the mills were abandoning New England for the South--and its non-union labor--so he moved to the Carolinas for his first job, managing a small garment shop. Later, when Southern workers were deemed too expensive, he became an expert in foreign production, although he knew what it meant for U.S. labor.

"He accepted it," his wife said. "It was certainly not good for the U.S., but you had to compete."

A New York headhunter found him for Carole Little in early 1994. By then, Martin was a veteran of such big-name labels as Leslie Fay and Izod and was living in Cincinnati. He was a pillar of the community, serving as a lay minister, volunteering at nursing homes and enjoying the athletic feats of his sons. But the youngest of the four kids was in college and Martin was looking forward to a "new chapter in our lives," his wife said--and thus was open to a lucrative opportunity that might set them up for retirement.

"He didn't think this was going to be a long tour of duty," she said.

He came to Carole Little that March as a consultant. The company was so impressed that by August it named him senior vice president for manufacturing and worldwide "sourcing."

Martin became known as a no-nonsense Mr. Clean. He'd pound on a desk to make the point that no contractor dare offer "play"--the industry's polite name for kickbacks--to get prime jobs. He fined them for late deliveries. And he looked to send more work to foreign locales such as Mexico, where trade provisions meant you could have a garment assembled--once it was cut--without paying tariffs.

Martin was renting an apartment in Marina del Rey so he and his wife could enjoy the ocean when she moved here in January. Until then, she was tending to their Ohio home, so he flew back there for Thanksgiving. Then he headed to Asia to visit contractors.

His wife sensed nothing unusual in their daily calls after he returned to Los Angeles. "Never had he gotten any threats," she said.

Their conversation the evening of Dec. 19 hardly touched on work. From the office, over longdistance, he tried to console her about the family dog, which had to be put down. They cried over it.

He left Carole Little headquarters shortly after 7 in his Ford Explorer.

At 4 the next morning, police came to the Martin home in Ohio. They had instructions for the family to call the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.

One of the boys got on the phone. Then he said, "Mom, Dad's dead. Someone's shot him."

Gerry Martin took the phone. A deputy told her there had been a "traffic altercation." Something about two men in a pickup, perhaps a short chase. Ken had stopped at a red light on his way to Marina del Rey. The truck's passenger jumped out--and blew him away.

It didn't sound right to her: Ken liked to mellow out in the car to classical music; and if he knew someone was chasing him, he would not wait at a light--he'd barrel through, horn blaring.

But all she thought to ask was, "Who would have done that?"

"They said, 'Ma'am, this is L.A. This happens all the time.' "

Rabinowitz, for one, thought the sheriff's scenario plausible.

"I believed it was a possibility," he recalled. "Ken was a great honorable guy, [but] there were people in the office who had driven with him who said he was a wild man behind the wheel. Maybe he pissed someone off?"

But Glendale cops were not buying it. Perkins had worked the brutal "Nightstalker" case in which police did not at first connect the killings by Richard Ramirez because they were widespread. Now, in this case, "we saw the writing on the wall," Perkins said.

Glendale police called the FBI.

FBI Joins the Investigation

Though law enforcement agencies gush over their "cooperation" when a big case is cracked, it's no secret that they are wary of each other, protective of their turf. And the FBI is cautious in doling out its expertise--the Los Angeles office must cover seven counties.

Still, it did not take much arm-twisting to get Charlie Parsons, the special agent in charge, to join the investigation. Having begun his career battling New York's Mafia, he now made it a priority to focus on "emerging groups" in organized crime "to stay a little ahead of the curve with these guys."

A month before Martin's murder, he had formed a "Russian Squad," with 12 agents, to watch for problems among the area's 500,000 immigrants from former Soviet Bloc states. "That's what's driving this," he said. "Just the numbers."

And if he had any inclination not to join the Carole Little case--well, even Rabinowitz was on the phone before long, urging the FBI to "aggressively investigate this!"

His call followed the events of May 4, 1995. That is when "Rollie" Ramirez was shot to death.

Rolando P. (Rollie) Ramirez, 44, was the company's comptroller. A native of the Philippines, he studied for the priesthood as a youth, but took a liking to business and came to the United States after college, in 1971. Through an aunt, he got a job as a bookkeeper for a firm that made handbags. He rose to chief accountant before being hired by Carole Little.

Even after he became chief financial officer, he could be seen alone in the cafeteria, reading over his lunch. "At work, he distanced himself from everyone because he felt that was the best way he could do his job," his wife explained. "But he was different at home."

They lived in the San Gabriel Valley, the center of the county's 200,000-plus Filipino American community. He loved tennis and was "like a kid" around his two children, his family said. His son was at Berkeley, his daughter about to enter Loyola Marymount.

He was the third victim to drive a Mercedes, the fourth ambushed while driving home. He was shot at 33rd and Main, blocks from the office, at 6:05 p.m.

There was no more keeping it under wraps. The Carole Little Murders were about to become front-page news.

Rabinowitz, traveling in Europe, flew back for a company meeting. On May 12, many of the 1,000 employees crammed into the cafeteria.

"I understand," he told the gathering, "that people are concerned."

Concerned? Frantic employees asked about bombs, security and renegade contractors.

Rabinowitz acknowledged sewing could be behind it all. According to one report, he said, "It's the first place we're looking. . . . There were people unhappy with us."

He was preparing a $100,000 reward and introduced a detective from the LAPD, the fifth agency on the case, drawn in by Ramirez's murder.

The various investigators began meeting and comparing notes. And the Sheriff's Department rethought the premise that Martin's murder was a traffic altercation.

"There is only a remote chance that these crimes are not in some way connected," Glendale Sgt. John McKillop says today.

Yet, even after the murder of the quiet comptroller, investigators had to consider the possibility it was all happenstance. It was hard, after all, to fit Ramirez into the contractor's revenge scenario. Sure he signed the checks, but he was an inside man--with no direct dealings with contractors.

The company thus agreed to a "forensic audit": Perhaps Ramirez was embezzling. Or someone else was stealing and he discovered it.

It took weeks and cost more than $100,000. "They found nothing," Rabinowitz reported, pleased because it cleared Ramirez's name. "I owed it to Rollie," he said.

But it left the folks at Carole Little in the same hard spot--with many questions and few answers. It remains a place on edge, a breeding ground for rumors. So last week, when someone on the phone with Martin's successor offered some well-meaning advice--"be careful"--a more ominous interpretation spread quickly through the ranks: that the new vice president had been threatened.

Such is the legacy of two years of terror and bloodshed.

'I Gotta Tell You, I Am Just Clueless'

Jury selection in Demirdzhyan's murder trial is to begin next week in Los Angeles Superior Court. His current attorney, James N. Sussman, says, "He pleaded not guilty and that's our position."

Though Demirdzhyan is charged with just one crime, the jury may be told of others--by the defense. "The fact that [subsequent] shootings occurred when he was in custody," Sussman says, "makes one wonder about his case."

For their part, police hope that if Demirdzhyan is convicted--and faces a life term--he may finally cooperate to lessen his sentence.

Gary Antonyan has attended the pretrial hearings with his brother's widow. They sit silently in court, glaring at Demirdzhyan.

They too have bodyguards now.

Business is not good, Antonyan says. Where the company once had 220 employees sewing overtime, they're down to 160, many parttime. Clothing companies keep sending more work abroad while asking local contractors to lower prices. "They say, 'Are you willing to make for less price?' I cannot refuse."

Karin Holzinger recently settled her lawsuit against Carole Little and got another job in the garment industry. "She just wants to get on with her life," her lawyer says.

Odjakhian's widow is working, too--at the jewelry business where he took his last call from Demirdzhyan.

"Before my husband's death, I was 100% housewife," his widow says. "This I do for the three kids."

From Ohio, Ken Martin's widow says their children are trying to "honor his memory with dignity." But Gerry Martin adds, "I often wonder if the person or persons responsible for Ken's murder realize or even care about the havoc wreaked upon so many people."

At Carole Little, meanwhile, Rabinowitz talks about "having a hard time now in a lot of respects being a businessman. . . . There's something going on with the fabric of America. It's very disconcerting to do business in this country."

He was pleased, to be sure, when FBI agents visited the other day, wanting to put some employees through lie detector tests. "I'm glad to see they're still working the case," he says. "I told them, 'If you polygraph, do me first.' "

Carole Little herself is mostly isolated from it all, enmeshed in developing next summer's line while continuing to mix with the Who's Who. A recent Liz Smith column named her among "a charming mix" at a party that drew Frank Sinatra and Jack Nicholson.

After the '92 riots, she and Rabinowitz considered leaving town. Mayor Richard Riordan had to talk them into staying. They plan to donate the current headquarters for use as a charter school, and move to the old May Co. building by the Harbor Freeway, a $20-million renovation project.

Now Rabinowitz, at 47, shakes his head at all a businessman faces today, from the frivolous lawsuits to the latest industry scandal--alleged slave labor at a Thai sewing shop in El Monte--and wonders if they should have pulled out of the entire country, simply "put computers in and do work offshore."

He and Little are starting to devote more time to a venture that has nothing to do with fashion--a film company. It soon will shoot their first movie, "Anaconda," about a giant reptile that keeps killing people.

"The snake is the star," Rabinowitz says. "It wraps itself around you, you're finished."

Such is the luxury of film. The big squeeze, and dead bodies, are made up. And, if you desire, you can have them catch the snake at the end.

The real-life horror story is not so easy. Rabinowitz mulls over the incidents and recites the names--Karin, Jack, Ken, Rollie--trying to figure something out. Anything.

"I gotta tell you," the boss of the Carole Little clothing company says, "I am just clueless."

Times staff writer Vicki Torres contributed to this story.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

THE CAROLE LITTLE MURDERS

Over the last two years, a series of shootings and bombings have targeted top executives of the Carole Little clothing company and one of its sewing contractors. Three executives--and the friend of a suspect--have been killed. Because the crimes have been spread over the Los Angeles area, five law enforcement agencies are looking for links to determine who is responsible. So far, only one alleged gunman has been arrested. He goes on trial--for just one of the murders--next week.

1993

July: California Fashion Industries, maker of the Carole Little clothing line, moves to trim the number of sewing shops it uses,seeking to cut costs and comply with government warnings about contractors that violate minimum wage laws. One of its vice presidents, Karin Holzinger, sends out termination letters to a dozen contractors.

*

Sept. 2: A bullet is fired into Holzinger's car as she drives on the 91 freeway in Compton. She says she had received a series of calls threatening her "with reprisals, bodily injury and death."

*

Sept. 7: A bomb is thrown at Holzinger's home in Long Beach. She takes a leave for "medical and psychiatric care and rehabilitation."

*

Oct. 29: Garnik (Gary) Antonyan, one of two Armenian-American brothers whose sewing shops are getting more Carole Little business, notices two men watching him from a car near his Studio City home.

*

Nov. 2, 8:40 p.m.: The other brother, Hakop (Jack) Antonyan, 39, is fatally shot in his Mercedes outside their Glendale sewing shop in what police call "a professional hit."

*

Nov. 3, 2:25 a.m.: Another bomb explodes at Holzinger's home while a security guard, hired to protect her, sleeps in his car.

*

Nov. 3: Glendale police find an abandoned Chevy apparently used by the Antonyan killer, .9 mm casings on the seat. They arrest Karapet Demirdzhyan, an Armenian immigrant with a criminal record whose family admits he owned the car--but insists he sold it and just bought a Ford. That car, found in front of Demirdzhyan's Hollywood home, resembles one seen outside Holzinger's home. Still, prosecutors decline to immediately file charges and he is released.

1994

March: Kenneth Martin, 51, is hired by Carole Little--first as a consultant and then as vice president--to continue the consolidation of sewing contractors and find more overseas.

*

May 9: Demirdzhyan is formally charged with Antonyan's murder. He pleads not guilty and is held without bail.

*

Nov. 9, 5:45 p.m.: Garnik Antonyan and his wife are shot while driving home from the Glendale plant, but survive. The gunman escapes.

*

Dec. 8, 5:35 p.m.: Gurgen Odjakhian, 32, a rugged karate enthusiast and friend of suspect Demirdzhyan, is fatally shot on the steps of his Glendale apartment. Relatives say Demirdzyan had been calling him from jail--once this very day--and speculate he "knew something."

*

Dec. 19, 7:30 p.m.: Martin is fatally shot at a stoplight in Ladera Heights while driving home from Carole Little's Downtown headquarters. Two suspects escape and investigators at first attribute the shooting to a traffic altercation.

1995

May 4, 6:05 p.m.: Rolando P. Ramirez, 44, Carole Little's veteran comptroller, is fatally shot in his car while heading home to the San Gabriel Valley.

*

May 12: Carole Little's chairman, Leonard Rabinowitz, calls an emergency meeting to reassure employees that security is in place to protect them and that law enforcement agencies, now including the FBI, are investigating the violence and trying to determine whether it, in fact, stems from company business. "If this is the case," a shaken Rabinowitz says later, "this is the first time I've ever heard of someone getting killed over sewing.

*

Nov. 1: Jury selection scheduled to begin in Demirdzyan's trial.

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