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FBI'S HOLLYWOOD `HIT'; MOVIE EFFECTS HELP EXPOSE MURDER SCHEME.

Byline: Donna Huffaker Staff Writer

Using Hollywood special effects experts to fake the death of an assassination target, FBI agents reported Monday that they foiled a complex plot that started with bribe offers for false testimony and ended with a murder-for-hire scheme.

Three people were arrested - the intended victim's wife, a former travel agent convicted of robbery and his brother, who is accused of working out a scheme designed to free him.

``This depraved bid to avoid the consequences of criminal behavior prompted swift and decisive action by law enforcement authorities,'' said U.S. Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas.

Charges were filed against Kristine Gagukovna Arutunyan, 29; Garen Zakarian, 35, who is serving an 85-year prison sentence for robbing a fellow Glendale travel agent; and Archak Zakarian, 30. They were accused of conspiring to use interstate facilities to murder and engaging in a plot to obstruct justice by corruptly influencing the testimony of various people to get Garen Zakarian a new trial.

Arutunyan and her husband, Artur Simonian, 35, reportedly were promised $50,000 to falsify testimony that would help win a new trial for Garen Zakarian, who had been acquitted of murdering the woman he was convicted of robbing.

Simonian apparently backed out of the deal, leading his wife and Archak Zakarian to seek out a go-between for hiring an assassin, authorities said.

The middleman turned out to be an FBI informant, and authorities set about exposing the plot. This involved the drama's last act - proving the ``hit'' had been completed.

For that, agents employed show-business makeup and special effects to manufacture photos of a bloody corpse of a man who had been shot in the head and stuffed into the trunk of a car. To complete the ruse, Simonian was in custody while the FBI put its plan to work.

The photo was given to the informant to turn over to the plotters, who were arrested Friday.

``Even with the recorded testimony and all the evidence, the picture put the stamp on the case,'' said Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Larson, chief of the organized crime strike force.

The plot was part of an elaborate scheme to overturn the conviction of Garen Zakarian by making up new testimony, said Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office.

In February 1997, a U.S. District Court judge sentenced Garen Zakarian to 85 years in federal prison for robbing rival Glendale travel agent Benita Mikailian, who was killed in October 1994. The judge said he believed Zakarian planned Mikailian's murder but in December 1995, a Pasadena Superior Court jury acquitted Zakarian of that charge.

Garen Zakarian owned an agency, EconoTrans, that provided air transportation between Armenia and the United States and had tried to buy 80 airline tickets from Mikailian so clients stranded in Paris could return to the United States.

Mikailian found out he did not have the $42,000 price for the tickets and refused to turn them over. She was shot four times in the heart while seated in her office Oct. 5, 1994.

Zakarian's fingerprint was found on the silencer of the .380-caliber Baretta that ballistics tests showed to be the weapon used. It, along with a machine gun and a pair of ski gloves, were discovered in a bag several blocks from Mikailian's travel agency.

The defense in Zakarian's murder trial said he found the silencer on the floor of a car in which he was riding and picked it up, thinking it was a shock absorber. The defense also suggested that Garen Zakarian was framed by ``unknown Armenian Mafia'' members.

Garen Zakarian's sister, Anait Zakarian, also was charged with the travel agent's murder. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department accidentally released her from custody in 1995 and she is still at large.

According to the FBI affidavit released Monday, the goal of the trio's plot was to reopen the case by getting an unidentified man from Armenia, who was to be paid $100,000, to falsely confess to killing Mikailian. The man was willing to do it to provide his family with the money, the affidavit says.

Archak Zakarian told an FBI informant in February that he would pay him $5,000 for providing a false alibi for his brother at the time of the Mikailian murder.

The affidavit said an FBI informant was told Simonian and Arutunyan had been promised $50,000 and that it was Simonian who provided Garen Zakarian with the silencer used in the travel agent's slaying.

According to the documents, Arutunyan gave the FBI informant a slip of white paper with her husband's name and address and other personal data. She also reportedly gave the informant a color photo of her husband, and a black-and-white photocopied picture of him.

On June 18, Arutunyan reportedly gave $3,500 to the government witness as a down payment for the killing. The witness told Arutunyan the job cost $10,000, court documents said.

When federal authorities searched Archak's Zakarian's Glendale apartment last week, they found police photos of Mikailian's bullet-riddled body inside his 1999 calendar. It was unclear how he had obtained the photos, officials said.

A U.S. magistrate denied bail to Arutunyan and Archak Zakarian on Monday. An indictment against all three defendants is expected to be returned late this month. Their arraignment is scheduled for Aug. 2.

CAPTION(S):

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Photo: GAREN ZAKARIAN
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 13, 1999
Words:893
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