A man awaiting trial in the killing of an Armenian woman in March was charged Tuesday with the 2008 slaying of the woman's husband and 8-year-old daughter, as well as the fatal, sniper-styled attack on a prostitute on Sunset Boulevard earlier this year.
The three additional murder charges against Alberd Tersargyan, 60, on Tuesday, brought together two seemingly separate investigations that had confounded police for months, adding more drama to a case that has shaken Los Angeles' Little Armenia neighborhood.
Tersargyan, who came to the U.S. nearly a decade ago, once served in the Armenian army and fancied himself "a professional killer," said detectives, who marveled at the deception and plotting they say he used in carrying out the slayings.
"Talk about betrayal. What he put in motion — it was a pretty incredible plan," said Los Angeles Police Det. Danny Myers, an investigator in the case.
Tersargyan was arrested in April, a few weeks after 38-year-old Karine Hakobyan was shot at close range and was discovered by her teenage daughter slumped in the front seat of her car. Police could find no witnesses who had seen or heard the shooting, and Tersargyan became a suspect only after police received a tip from his employer.
Hakobyan's killing was a brutal coda for a family that had immigrated to the United States from Armenia in 2003. Fifteen months earlier, in December 2008, the same daughter had come home to her apartment on Tamarind Avenue to find the bodies of her father, Khachik Safaryan, and younger sister. They, too, had been shot and, again, detectives could find no one who had heard or seen the attack.
At the outset, detectives pursued a dead-end theory that the killings were linked to an affair Safaryan was having. They now accuse Tersargyan of deliberately pointing them in the wrong direction in an attempt to avoid suspicion. Police suspect Tersargyan killed Hakobyan's husband and child after becoming obsessed with her.
Tersargyan and his wife became close friends of Hakobyan's family almost immediately after they arrived in the country and moved to Little Armenia on the eastern edges of Hollywood, police say. The two couples socialized frequently and went on vacations together, detectives said.
Sometime in mid-2008, Safaryan confided in Tersargyan that he was having an affair with an old girlfriend he had known in Armenia, said Det. Mike Whalen, who worked on the case. By then, Tersargyan had fallen in love with Hakobyan and, seeing an opportunity to exploit the situation, tried to drive the couple apart by helping Safaryan to arrange his trysts, while also telling Hakobyan details about the affair, detectives say.
Hakobyan, however, remained in the marriage, which appears to have angered Tersargyan and led him to more drastic measures, detectives said. Safaryan received an anonymous threat that he should leave the country quickly, which detectives said they now believe was an attempt by Tersargyan to make the man flee. Within days of the threat, Safaryan and his daughter were dead.
During the investigation into those killings, Tersargyan ingratiated himself with Myers, feeding him details about the affair, which helped to turn suspicion on the mistress and her husband.
"He was a key source of information," Myers said. "He sold himself to us as [Safaryan's] close confidant." Hakobyan, meanwhile, did not give detectives any reason to suspect Tersargyan, never mentioning that Tersargyan was courting her, police said.
In the months after the slayings, Tersargyan continued to pursue Hakobyan without success. Police believe the constant rebuffs ultimately drove him to kill her as well. At the time of Hakobyan's death, Myers was still investigating Safaryan's mistress and her husband for the earlier killings and pursued the possibility they were responsible for Hakobyan's murder as well. Myers knew Hakobyan was about to file a wrongful-death lawsuit against the woman and reasoned that she may have had Hakobyan killed to stop the lawsuit.
Suspicion first fell on Tersargyan when his boss at a small cabinet-making company called an Armenian American police officer he knew in the Glendale Police Department with concerns about one of his workers. He told the officer that he had seen Tersargyan with a handgun and that he had talked of his close relationship with the Safaryan family, according to detectives.
The Glendale officer alerted the LAPD, and detectives turned their attention to Tersargyan. After his arrest, ballistics tests on a gun he owned showed it had been used to fire the bullets that killed Hakobyan, Whalen said.
While searching Tersargyan's house, police found a beat-up gray van. The discovery jogged Myers' memory. He recently had been talking with another homicide detective, who was investigating the unusual killing of a prostitute that had occurred a few weeks before Hakobyan's death and little more than a mile away.
The prostitute, Julie Kates, had been standing alone at a bus stop in daylight on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Kingsley Drive when she suddenly fell to the ground, according to Myers and coroner's records. Confused passersby rushed to her side, but it wasn't until Kates had been taken to a hospital that emergency room doctors realized she had been shot in the temple with a small-caliber weapon. No one in the area had heard a gunshot, Myers said.
An acquaintance of Kates' told the detective handling the case that a man driving an old gray van had angrily accused Kates of stealing a DVD player the day before she was killed and threatened to harm her if she did not return it.
Suspecting that the acquaintance had been describing Tersargyan, Myers, Whalen and another detective, George Diaz, took over the Kates investigation. The acquaintance identified Tersargyan to police as the man who had threatened Kates, authorities said. Detectives said they suspect Tersargyan had hired Kates for sex and had become enraged after she allegedly stole the DVD player.
Investigators declined to discuss other evidence they have against Tersargyan but said there are indications he fired a single shot at Kates from inside his van from across Sunset Boulevard. They believe he may have attached a silencer to the barrel of the gun or rifle he used to muffle the sound of the gunfire.
An attorney from the L.A. County Public Defender's Office who represented Tersargyan at his first arraignment did not return calls seeking comment.
The detectives also declined to discuss the details of the case they have built against Tersargyan in the killings of Safaryan and the young girl. Of those killings Myers would only say, "They were the first chapter in a long story and explain what happened next. Julie Kates, it seems, was just an unfortunate intermission in the story."
Times Staff Writer Sarah Ardalani contributed to this report.