A Fake Murder Gets Real Results for FBI
It was a scene straight out of Hollywood: The target of an organized crime killing is found stuffed in a blood-spattered car trunk, a bullet hole in his head.
With the help of a Hollywood studio’s special effects expert, that’s the way FBI agents made it look as they moved to break up what they said was a murder-for-hire scheme and a related plot to free a man serving an 85-year prison term.
The fake murder was revealed Monday, when federal authorities unsealed an indictment against former Glendale travel agent Garen Zakarian, who is serving the 85-year prison term; Arshak Zakarian, his brother, accused of arranging the hit; and Kristine Arutunyan, accused of collaborating in the plot against her husband, Artur Simonian, 35, of Glendale. Arshak Zakarian, 30, and Arutunyan, 29, both of Glendale, were arrested Friday after Zakarian received a photograph of what seemed to be Simonian’s bloodied body. Zakarian had ordered the photo as proof the killing had taken place.
According to the indictment, the murder-for-hire attempt grew out of a plot hatched by the two brothers to fabricate an alibi that Garen Zakarian could use to win a new trial. Garen Zakarian, 35, has been in Lompoc Prison since his 1996 conviction on weapons charges stemming from the murder of Benita Mikhailian, another travel agency operator in Glendale.
Prosecutors said Mikhailian was killed because she refused to provide Garen Zakarian with plane tickets he desperately needed for 80 Armenian clients who were stranded in Paris on a prepaid trip to the United States. He tried to pay for the tickets with bad checks, according to court testimony.
Garen Zakarian was acquitted of murder charges, but he was convicted in federal court for weapons and interstate commerce violations arising out of Mikhailian’s slaying.
While incarcerated, Garen Zakarian told a fellow Lompoc inmate that he and his brother had arranged for an Armenian man to come to the United States and falsely claim that he was the one who killed Mikhailian, according to an affidavit prepared by a member of the FBI’s organized crime squad. In exchange, the man’s family would receive $100,000, the inmate told authorities.
To buttress the false claims, the brothers also offered money to a number of other people to testify that Garen Zakarian was somewhere else when Mikhailian was killed, the affidavit said. One of those solicited, it said, was a government informant who met with Arshak Zakarian on Feb. 9 at a Glendale apartment, where he was offered $5,000 and coached on what to say.
Others enlisted to perpetrate the scheme were Simonian and his wife, Arutunyan, who were offered $50,000 for the alibi, the Lompoc inmate said.
At some point, however, Simonian himself became a target for a hit, court papers say. Assistant U.S. Atty. Stephen Larson, who is prosecuting the case, declined to say why Simonian might have become a target for murder. He also refused to say why Simonian’s wife might have wanted him killed, as charged in the indictment.
On June 3, the FBI affidavit said, Arutunyan met with a middleman who was supposed to arrange the hit on Simonian. As it happened, the intermediary was an FBI informant inmate at Lompoc.
The FBI said that at the meeting, which took place in a Glendale supermarket parking lot, Arutunyan turned over to the FBI informant a $3,500 down payment for the contract killing as well as photographs and personal information about her husband.
FBI agents later met with Simonian and told him about the alleged plot. They said he agreed to cooperate, including posing as a dead man. He is now under FBI protection.
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