For months, Danny Khatchaturian and Dikran Iskendarian planned an elaborate scheme to cheat on the Law School Admissions Test, hoping for scores that would gain them entry into the good life via Harvard, Yale or Stanford.
Instead, Khatchaturian, 24, and Iskendarian, 23, were sentenced Wednesday to a year in custody and five years’ probation for hiring an acquaintance to steal a copy of the test in Los Angeles and relay answers electronically while they took the exam in Hawaii.
“This is the first time we’ve seen something like this,” said Jim Vaseleck, associate counsel of the Law School Admissions Council, which oversees the law school entrance exam.
The two men, both of Glendale, will probably serve their jail sentences at home under electronic surveillance. Khatchaturian and Iskendarian have no criminal records, and received college grades that might have earned them law school admission without cheating. Now, the felony convictions will prevent both men from ever becoming lawyers.
The men and an accomplice, Ashot Melikyan, 24, were also ordered to pay about $97,000 in restitution to the admissions council.
“When I think of the aggravation that I went through to take the LSAT . . . [this crime] is an insult to everyone who studied legitimately,” said Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Larry P. Fidler during the sentencing hearing.
Khatchaturian and Iskendarian both pleaded no contest last November to charges of conspiracy, robbery and grand theft. Melikyan, of Glendale, pleaded guilty to robbery in October and spent a year in jail awaiting trial. He is now free on three years’ probation.
According to grand jury testimony, Melikyan used a fake identification card to enter the basement of the USC Law School, where the test was being given on Feb. 8, 1997. Once the test was handed out, he grabbed a copy and bolted out a back door. The proctor ran after him, and the two scuffled. Melikyan pulled what appeared to be a switchblade, scaring off the proctor.
After that, prosecutors said, Melikyan took the test to a fourth person who they believe figured out the answers and transmitted via pager them to Khatchaturian and Iskendarian at their testing site at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Prosecutors said they did not have enough evidence to indict the fourth suspect.
Hawaiian proctors became suspicious and confronted Khatchaturian and Iskendarian about reading their pagers during the exam. The two men claimed not to know each other, according to grand jury testimony.
Their exam scores placed them in the top 150 of about 19,000 test takers that day.
The 130-question test, which cost about $600,000 to develop, is required for admission to most law schools in the U.S. and Canada and is given four times per year to about 100,000 law school applicants. Only about 30 test-takers a year are investigated each year for cheating, and most cases are cleared, Vaseleck said.
Khatchaturian and Iskendarian’s scores on the test could have gained them entry into the nation’s best law schools, said Stephen Klein, a senior researcher at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica who analyzed their exam results for the prosecution.
Both men excelled in their studies and were student leaders, friends said.
Khatchaturian had a 3.7 grade-point average at USC, his attorney said. He served as president of the Armenian Students Assn. during the 1996-97 academic year but was expelled at the end of his senior year.
“He was an A student, a good campus citizen, the best,” said a USC faculty member who did not want his name used. “He did that stupid thing and shocked us all.”
Iskendarian was also president of the Armenian Students Assn. at his school, Woodbury University in Burbank. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1998, school officials said.
But according to their attorneys, the two men fell victim to the pressure to succeed.
“He lost his judgment because he wanted to succeed in this competitive world,” said Khatchaturian’s attorney, Armand Arabian, a retired state Supreme Court justice.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Loni Petersen said Khatchaturian spent at least five months piecing together the plot. He hired Melikyan, paying him $600 to steal the test, and then arranged for the fourth person to answer the test questions.
Petersen had recommended a 16-month sentence in state prison for Khatchaturian and a one-year term in county jail for Iskendarian.