After spending three months in Juvenile Hall on murder charges and costing their parents hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills for big-name defense lawyers, two private-school-educated teens were released Wednesday after authorities dismissed the case against them, citing insufficient evidence.
“There’s nothing else I pretty much care about right now but being free,” Sayat Oruncakciel, 18, said outside the Van Nuys courthouse. “It feels great.”
Oruncakciel and Michael Aintablian, also 18, were arrested in May after eyewitnesses at a sweet 16 party in a wealthy Encino neighborhood said they and four other teens started a fight that left 17-year-old Abtin Tangestanifar dead in the street.
Their parents said they always believed their children were innocent and spared no expense in freeing them. They hired Robert Shapiro, a member of the O.J. Simpson “dream team,” Death Row Records lawyer Robert Kenner and retired state Supreme Court Justice Armand Arabian to defend the teens.
They said their investigators uncovered evidence proving their clients’ innocence.
Indeed, during a preliminary hearing that stretched over weeks, several party-goers who police said initially had identified Oruncakciel and Aintablian as aggressors gave different accounts of the beating and stabbing death.
Oruncakciel was apparently mistakenly identified by two witnesses, and a teenage girl who police said had identified Aintablian denied under oath that she had made those statements.
At the end of Wednesday’s hearing, Deputy Dist. Atty. John Morris requested charges be dropped against Aintablian and Oruncakciel.
“The witnesses exonerated the defendants,” Morris said. “I am satisfied that neither Sayat nor Michael were involved in the fight, based on the testimony.
“My goal was to get to the truth, and we did.”
While absolving Aintablian and Oruncakciel, the witnesses also cemented incriminating statements against the other four defendants, whom Morris is seeking to try as adults.
The victims’ parents have said all they want is justice for their dead son. On Wednesday they left the courtroom sobbing during the proceedings as the party’s hostess testified to having found Tangestanifar lying in the street, blood smeared on his arm and his chest punctured by stab wounds.
Authorities said the youth was stabbed 11 times as some of the attackers yelled out the name of a street gang.
Hriar Aintablian said his son was trying to help childhood friends leave gang life at the time the slaying occurred and the boy was simply caught up in a well-intentioned search for justice by overworked detectives.
“They should have checked it out more,” he said. “What my son did was a noble cause. He was trying to help these kids and what did he get? Punishment. This was not fair.”
He said the matter cost him more than $150,000 in legal bills, which drained the 54-year-old engineer’s retirement savings.
“I had to do what I had to do. When it’s your son, you don’t take chances,” he said. “I bought my son back.”
Shapiro, who represented Aintablian, said the teen should have been freed during Juvenile Court proceedings, but was not because he and Kenner were not allowed to present the evidence they had uncovered because the rules in Juvenile Court are different than in adult court.
“The Legislature should use this case as a shining light to see that justice should be accomplished at the juvenile level,” Shapiro said.
Aintablian was released from East Lake Juvenile Hall after the morning hearing, authorities said.
Oruncakciel’s family had freed him on bail Friday afternoon. His mother said Wednesday they had been waiting for months to clear his name.
“It was bad that I got pulled in, but some people ask me if I’m [angry]. I tell them no because, if it were anywhere else, I wouldn’t have had a trial like this and there wouldn’t have been justice,” Sayat Oruncakciel said after the hearing, surrounded by relatives and teenage friends who filled the courtroom each time his case was called.
Some of the youths’ supporters have questioned why police had arrested them, and a few say investigators fudged witnesses’ statements.
But Morris said the case was handled properly from the start.
“They should have been arrested, and this case was properly filed because we had two witnesses identify these guys as being involved and a third witness was tentative. That’s pretty good for a gang case,” said Morris, who specializes in gang prosecution. “They weren’t out to get these guys.”
But some relatives were upset at the delay at freeing teens who were detained for crimes they did not commit.