Prosecutors had painted him as a desperate man who killed a Glendale woman for a stack of airline tickets to keep his business alive, but after deliberating for just eight hours, a jury acquitted Garen Zakarian of capital murder Thursday.
As Zakarian's wife, mother and other family members wept and embraced with joy, relatives of Benita Mikailian, the 42-year-old travel agent who was gunned down in her office on the evening of Oct. 5, 1994, were stunned.
"Emotionally and financially, we were destroyed by this--we lost the business, we lost our home," said Zakarian's wife, Mari, after the acquittal. "It was a nightmare, but I always knew he was not guilty and justice would be done."
Deputy Dist. Atty. Sterling Norris called the verdict "absurd." He said he believes jurors may have acted rashly in order to end the trial before the holidays.
"Unfortunately, we've had these 'Christmas verdicts' before, they're rushing to get out," a frustrated Norris said. "We recently saw one man go free. That was O.J. Now we have another."
Zakarian, 30, was accused of shooting Mikailian in order to steal 80 airline tickets from Paris to Los Angeles, which he needed to avoid stranding a planeload of passengers in Europe.
His sister, Anait, with whom he ran the Econo Trans travel agency in Glendale, was also charged with capital murder in the case, but she was mistakenly released from jail in July and has since vanished. Prosecutors, who said they will try Anait for murder if and when she is caught, said her absence hampered their ability to fully discuss her alleged role in the crime.
Defense attorney Malcolm Guleserian maintained that the evidence--which included three of Zakarian's fingerprints, one found on a silencer used in the shooting--actually implicated a man named Sisak Manukian, who allegedly worked for the Armenian mafia trying to force Zakarian out of the travel business. Guleserian alleged that Manukian, who vanished shortly after the slaying, killed Mikailian and then planted evidence linking the crime to the defendant.
Jurors left the courthouse without talking to reporters. But both Norris and Guleserian, who met with several jurors in the judge's chambers after the verdict, said the defense conspiracy theory was only a partial factor in the verdict.
Both said the jurors believed Zakarian when he testified at the trial that he was at his office the night Mikailian was slain, and that his fingerprint was left on the silencer when he picked up an object that he thought was a shock absorber in Manukian's car.
"The problem is, you have a jury that has never heard a defendant testify before. They have a hard time believing that what appears to be a normal human being would go out and kill somebody," Norris said.
Testimony revealed that on the day of the killing, Mikailian had withheld the airline tickets from the Zakarians after discovering they had insufficient funds in their bank account to cover two $21,000 checks.
Prosecutors alleged that one or both of the Zakarian siblings visited Mikailian in her office under the pretense of making arrangements to pay, but instead shot her five times with a semiautomatic handgun and stole documents they thought were the airline tickets.
Norris insisted those documents, which were recovered from an associate of the Zakarians in Paris, were a key piece of evidence. They turned out to be worthless "agent coupons" that look like plane tickets but are used as receipts. Norris said this proved they were unwittingly stolen, and not willfully handed over by Mikailian, as Guleserian maintained.
"I think the evidence was there and the case was proved, and that's why we're in such disbelief as to how this could have happened," said Eric Khatchatourian, Mikailian's cousin, one of about 20 family members who were in the courtroom. "We have been in tremendous grief for the past 14 months, and this is not going to help."
Zakarian's wife said she and the couple's two young children were looking forward to reuniting with her husband. She called the verdict "the biggest present of my life." She said she did not know whether Zakarian intends to reopen Econo Trans, which closed after his arrest.
Members of the Zakarian family said they do not know the whereabouts of Anait Zakarian, 22, whom prosecutors believe fled the country after being released from jail due to a clerical error within the Sheriff's Department.
Norris said he still intends to prosecute Anait Zakarian if she is ever captured. Norris said there is no evidence implicating Manukian, who is also believed to have left the country.
Norris said the district attorney's office may prosecute Guleserian for allegedly bringing a loaded Glock 9-millimeter handgun concealed in his briefcase into the courtroom shortly before the trial started. Guleserian could not be reached for comment.