In the summer of 1991, two dozen gang members took over the parking lot of a mini-mall in East Hollywood and turned it into their headquarters. They intimidated patrons of the mall’s restaurants and clothing stores, forcing the shop owners to hire two off-duty LAPD officers for security.
They wore the classic uniform of the barrio street gang: baggy khaki pants, pressed white T-shirts, hair nets and navy blue ski caps. Tattooed and armed with Berettas and Glocks and Kalashnikovs, they spoke in Spanish street jargon.
But a Latino gang they were not.
The teenagers and young men wrecking havoc on these businesses were members of Armenian Power, a new street gang in the heavily Armenian areas of East Hollywood and Glendale. With only 120 members, the gang is now blamed by authorities for a dozen murders--almost exclusively of rival gang members--and more than 100 shootings.
To thousands of Armenian Americans whose parents and grandparents came here after escaping the horrors of World War I and genocide, the existence of an Armenian gang is a stain on the tight ethnic community that has achieved success beyond its small numbers in politics, art, business and farming.
To thousands of recent Armenian immigrants who fled the war-ravaged streets of Beirut, the political upheavals of Iran and the Armenian homeland itself, the gang is a painful reminder of the lawlessness they sought to leave behind.
To most residents of Los Angeles, the young gang is unknown, even though it was powerful enough to have been included in peace talks called several years ago by the Mexican Mafia prison gang to ban drive-by shootings among Latino gangs.
To themselves, the members of Armenian Power are guardians of young Armenian Americans, who have often come under attack from older, larger gangs. They consider themselves noble, like the immigrant Italian, Jewish and Irish gangs of New York’s Lower East Side did at the turn of the century, banding together to defend their own from a hostile world.
“Most of the fights I got into, I got into for Armenians that other guys were picking on,” said 19-year-old Hando, who, like most gang members, is Armenian-born.
Had one watched the birth of Los Angeles’ Latino gangs in the 1940s, or the birth of the first Crips in the early ‘70s, or the first Salvadoran immigrant gangs in the ‘80s, one would not have been alarmed. It was only a handful of wayward boys set against a huge metropolis, only a handful of violent episodes. No one sees the first signs of cancer.
There is no guarantee that Armenian Power--or AP, as the gang is known on the street--will metastasize the same way. After all, in a county with 150,000 gang members and 1,200 gangs, how much harm can 120 Armenian American guys do? How much pain can they possibly cause?
Watch, first, the way Nishan Kazanchyan, who happened to be an Armenian American but not a gang member, died in Hollywood in March.
He was 18 years old and driving a Latino girl home at 2:25 a.m. According to police sources, a member of Mara Salvatrucha, the huge, primarily El Salvadoran gang known as MS that for years has been the archenemy of AP, lurked in the girl’s driveway, apparently offended by the cross-cultural date.
When Kazanchyan pulled into the driveway, four bullets squashed out his life.
Police believe that Kazanchyan was mistaken for an AP member merely because of his ethnicity.
The shooting appeared to be in retaliation for an incident the week before when, in front of a Western Avenue ice cream parlor, Armenian Power members drove a car over a member of the Salvadoran gang, severely injuring him.
Hundreds of Armenian Americans gathered at the Old North Church at Forest Lawn Cemetery in the Hollywood Hills to bury Kazanchyan.
The women, nearly 50 of them, clustered around his open casket before services began. Above the soft whimpering of several young girls, above the moans of wrinkled old ladies, the piercing scream of a mother rang out.
Outside the small, overflowing chapel, where the older men had gathered in groups of four and five, there were no tears. All were dressed completely in black. There was hardly any emotion displayed--except for bail bondsman Sharkey Klian, who had taught Nishan Kazanchyan martial arts when the boy was 6.
Without meaning to, Klian, a 235-pound former bounty hunter who has black belts in three martial arts, had passed on skills to the boys that they eventually used to help start the cycle of violence.
In the late 1980s, Klian was worried that too many young Armenian Americans were hanging out on the street doing nothing. So he decided to teach them self-defense as a diversion.
The plan backfired.
The older Armenian American boys, who as new kids in town had been coming under frequent attack from larger Salvadoran and Mexican American gangs, quickly started using those skills in fistfights at Hollywood, Marshall, Hoover and Glendale high schools.
“After I heard about all the fights, I stopped the lessons,” said a sad-eyed Klian, whose downtown bail bond customers now include some of the youths he tried to help. It was too late.
The fighting eventually erupted into shootings and killings and retaliation shootings and killings, and a small gang coalesced around the violence.
At first, of course, it was more innocent. Sam Salazar, senior lead officer of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Northeast Division, which patrols much of Armenian Power’s turf, remembers running into AP for the first time in 1990 when the owners of a now-defunct Hollywood carwash complained about the gang’s graffiti.
Salazar met with the gang’s leader, Vahag Hagopian, better known as Boxer, a powerfully built man Salazar remembers as “5 foot, 9 inches tall and as wide as an ox.”
Boxer promised Salazar that his troops would be at the carwash to clean it up the next morning. Salazar doubted it. But Boxer and more than 50 homeboys showed up and painted over the vandalism with paint the police provided. It was the redemptive tale every warm-hearted cop wants to believe.
“Boxer was really nice and very polite. I really liked him,” says Salazar, who said he often had hourlong conversations with the gang leader.
Within a year, Boxer’s gang took over that East Hollywood mini-mall on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Edgemont Avenue. Business plummeted. Eventually, after more negotiations with Boxer, the gang left.
“Boxer,” said bail bondsman Klian as he puffed on a cigar and waited for another shot of Johnnie Walker Black at a downtown bar, “was the type of guy that would not bother you at all, unless you messed with him. But if you messed up once, that was it. No more chances. No three strikes with Boxer. You get one strike and then he’d be all over your ass like black on charred shish kebab.”
According to police, and several AP members who proudly tell the story, in 1994 Boxer knelt on one knee on Hollywood Boulevard, aimed his .45 at a rival a half-block away and blew the back of his head off with one shot.
“It really bothered me,” Salazar said.
Any hope Salazar had had disappeared when Boxer fled to Armenia after the killing; a warrant for his arrest on suspicion of murder is still active.
It is part of L.A. gang legacy that each generation indulges in cruder tactics. “The younger guys are out of control,” moan older members of so many gangs. And so it was that with Boxer gone, AP lost any sense of discipline or respect.
Ever since Alexander the Great invaded Armenia in 331 BC, Armenians, at the crossroads of East and West, have fought against a long line of invaders.
They are hardened by battle. Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon’s staff got a taste of that in April when it canvassed a North Hollywood neighborhood for signs of psychological damage after the notorious bank robbery and machine-gun shootout nearby.
Staffers discovered that many Armenian Americans were unimpressed by what everyone else in Los Angeles considered a horrifying show of firepower.
“Shootout? You call that a shootout?” said an Armenian American man who claimed to be a veteran of the vicious street battles between the Armenian militia and Christian Phalangists in the eastern Beirut suburb of Bourj Hammoud during the late 1970s.
Being a people so often besieged by violence, including the horrors of genocide at the hands of the Turks, makes the rise of Armenian Power all the more distressing to many in Southern California’s Armenian community.
At a bakery in East Hollywood, an Armenian American woman in her 40s remembered the Armenian street fighters from her days in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war and sneered at AP.
“In Bourj Hammoud,” she said, speaking on the condition of anonymity, “the fedayeen [Arabic for commandos] would do things you were proud of. They protected the neighborhood. They stayed out all night to watch over us. And when one of the fedayeen fell, it was for something important, something sacred--it was not for something stupid, like a pack of cigarettes.”
Businessman Harry Arzouman, who grew up near South Park in South-Central Los Angeles, recalled the 1940s, when Armenian Americans used to have picnics in Elysian Park. Every year, Arzouman said, Sheriff Eugene Biscailuz would visit the picnic.
“I always remember him saying that no Armenian had ever spent a night in his jail,” Arzouman said.
Armenian Americans are spending plenty of nights and days in jails these days.
In Glendale--where about 25% of the city’s 195,000 residents are of Armenian descent, the highest proportion of any U.S. city--57 people with the same Armenian last name have been arrested over the last five years. A recent computerized readout of every inmate in the county jail system listed more than 200 Armenian surnames. This is only a tiny percentage of the more than 300,000 Armenian Americans living in Southern California, but too many for much of the Armenian community.
“When I think of the Armenians that came here, like my grandparents, what they took pride in more than anything else was hard work and being honest,” said David Arzouman, a music composer.
Pride is a word that surfaces frequently in conversations with Armenian Americans. Pride in being the first country to make Christianity the national religion (301 AD). Pride in writer William Saroyan, in Russian MIG fighter designer Ardashes Migoyan, in former world chess champion Tigran Petrosian, in former California Gov. George Deukmejian, in college basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian, in former Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian, in financier Kirk Kerkorian.
Many recent Armenian immigrants, accustomed to living in countries where even a minor crime was punished with sledgehammer harshness, blame the rise of Armenian Power on a lenient criminal justice system.
“Many of them came from communist countries,” said Rouben Zambakjian, 91, a survivor of the Armenian genocide. “It’s so free here, they can do whatever they want.” Several older members of St. James Armenian Church in Ladera Heights gasped when a reporter showed them a picture of an imprisoned gang leader with a large tattoo across his back reading “Armenian Power”.
“Oh my god, that’s awful,” said one middle-age woman, her face contorted with disgust as she looked at the picture.
“When I see and hear that Armenians are associated with violence and theft, it’s hard for me to accept,” said a 73-year-old man.
The man said he had stormed the sands of Omaha Beach in the D-day invasion of France in 1944 but didn’t want his name published because he feared retaliation by AP--feared being hunted down by the grandchildren of Armenian Americans his age.
“I wonder what the grandparents think of all this,” he said.
Before AP blemished its culture’s reputation, “we were considered to be a very nice, old-fashioned people,” said an elderly Armenian American woman. “But now, oh, it makes me so sad.”
Alec Petrossian, who migrated from Iran to Glendale with his wife, Juliet, in 1984, knows sad. For two years he has been going to his son’s grave nearly every morning.
Tony Petrossian was not a gang member, police say, just a kid who had friends who belonged to AP. At 17 he was a promising poet. He could also bench-press 300 pounds. On May 31, 1995, some of those friends came to Tony’s parents’ house in Glendale. They came not for his prose, but for his muscles. They recruited Petrossian to go with them to Brand Park. There, another group of Armenian Americans--young men not affiliated with Armenian Power--waited, angry over a stereo that was supposed to have been fixed. A fight ensued.
“My Tony went there to fight,” said Alec Petrossian. “But he went there to fight like a man with his fists, not with a weapon.”
At the park, the expected argument erupted into a fight and escalated into murder, when another boy, who had brought a Rambo-style hunting knife, plunged it into Petrossian’s heart.
“That day, time stopped for us,” the father said. “From that day on, we don’t live, we just exist. I could live in the worst place on earth, but as long as my Tony was beside me it would be all right. If it was raining, we were enjoying life. If there were hard times financially, we were happy.”
He took out a handkerchief, dabbed tears from his eyes and tenderly rubbed a typewriter in a conference room of the Glendale real estate office where he recently returned to work after taking off 1 1/2 years to grieve. The fact that the killer was recently sentenced to nine years in prison changes nothing. The father told how Tony would come to the office and type poems he had written by hand. Often the younger Petrossian, frustrated by the flaws of his work, would snatch the paper out of the typewriter, ball it up and throw it into the trash can.
The father showed a poem by his son published in Rippling Waters, the annual book of poetry put out by the Library of Congress.
“If I would have known his life would be so short,” he said, “I would have saved every scrap of paper from that trash can.”
Next: The young gang becomes part of the social fabric.