Six men charged with murder in the alleged attempted extortion of a Glendale merchant that turned deadly were themselves innocently caught in the middle of a dispute, defense lawyers said Thursday.
"It's a business dispute that escalated," said James E. Blatt, the lawyer representing defendant Mger Tagvoryan, 23, of North Hollywood. "This was not an extortion or attempted robbery."
The six defendants pleaded not guilty to murder, robbery and conspiracy charges at Glendale Municipal Court on Thursday. Court Commissioner Daniel F. Calabro ordered them held without bail and scheduled a preliminary hearing Jan. 23.
The defendants were arrested after a shootout at the Mirage Clothing & Shoes store on Glendale Avenue on Dec. 17 in which two men died.
Authorities continued to search for a seventh suspect, identified as Samvel Krboyan, 42, of Van Nuys.
The case intensified concerns by local and federal authorities about possible Russian and Armenian extortion or related crimes in the region.
A few days after the shooting the Glendale Police Department created a hotline for tips and this week police launched a public awareness campaign designed to reach the city's immigrant communities. The hotline number is (818) 548-2119.
Defense lawyers said outside the courtroom Thursday that their clients have nothing to do with organized crime or any extortion ring. As more evidence, including ballistics reports, becomes available, the truth about what happened at the clothing store that night will be revealed, they said.