Six men charged with murder in the alleged attempted extortion of a Glendale merchant that left two men dead 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, one a teenage bystander.
Authorities continued to search for a seventh suspect, identified as Samvel Krboyan, 42, of Van Nuys.
The case immediately intensified ongoing 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--at (818) 548-2119--and this week police launched a public awareness campaign specially designed to reach the city's immigrant communities.
But 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.
Alex R. Kessel, who represents defendant Karen Takvoryan, 22, of Van Nuys, said the store owner, whose name has been withheld because police fear for his safety, has not been candid with authorities.
"These people know each other. None of these gentlemen should be here for the crime of murder," said Kessel, who declined to elaborate.
Several defense lawyers said they were eager to present their cases.
"We've got clients in custody. We're anxious to start getting the truth out," said Alan Baum, who represents defendant Gagik Kazarian, 44, of Glendale. "Things aren't what they seem."
Deputy Dist. Atty. Eleanor Hunter, who is handling the case, was unavailable for comment. The store owner, who has declined to talk about the case, did not return a telephone call Thursday.
Besides Tagvoryan, Kazarian and Takvoryan, the defendants are Khoren Broutian, 32, of Hollywood; Hovik Fiterz, 36, also of North Hollywood, and Takvoryan's brother, Hovhanes Takvoryan, 23, also of Van Nuys.
Killed in the shootout shortly after 11:30 p.m. Dec. 17 were bystander Edmon Tokatlyan, 19, of Glendale and an alleged assailant, Artur Atayan, 27, of North Hollywood.
Several defense lawyers said it seemed that a heated argument led to the violence.
"In arguments people get angry," Kessel said.