BY ALEX DOBUZINSKIS, Staff Writer
Within days after a teenager was shot and paralyzed at a pickup basketball game, suspect Vigen Uguryan hopped on a plane bound for Moscow.
Many airports have flights to the Russian capital, and Glendale investigators believe Uguryan, 27, followed an itinerary used by other fugitives of Armenian descent – passing through Russia on the way to Armenia.
But Russian authorities detained Uguryan at the airport, fingering him for having phony papers. American authorities hoped he would be sent back to face trial in the shooting of a teenager at Columbus Elementary School in Glendale.
Then Uguryan was released – because the United States doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Russia or Armenia.
“Our State Department asked for his return, and they wouldn’t do it,” Glendale police Sgt. Ian Grimes said.
Four years after Uguryan allegedly shot the youth, the former Glendale resident is among 50 to 75 fugitives the FBI believes are living in Armenia and wanted by Southern California law enforcement agencies for arrest or questioning.
A Russian Embassy official in Washington, D.C., couldn’t discuss details of the Uguryan case, but cited the lack of a treaty.
“At this moment we haven’t got a treaty over extradition,” said Alexey Timofeev, press secretary for the Russian Embassy. “That’s why we have to consider every case as a particular case, a unique case through diplomatic and government channels.”
The Armenian Embassy did not return calls seeking comment.
Local authorities said the job of bringing suspects back from Armenia would be easier if America had an extradition treaty with that country, as it does with Mexico and more than 100 other nations.
“It’s a lot easier to get away with murder if there is no extradition,” said Detective George Shamlyan of the Los Angeles Police Department.
Last month, Armenian authorities notified Shamlyan that one of the LAPD’s most wanted – fugitive Vahagan Akopyan, 34 – would be tried in Armenia for the 1994 shooting death of Mario Vasquez, 17. Akopyan, who lived in Panorama City, allegedly shot Vasquez in Hollywood during a gang confrontation.
U.S. authorities tried to get Akopyan sent back for trial in 2002 after he walked into the U.S. Embassy in Armenia with a fake passport bearing a different name and tried to get a visa.
Armenian police arrested him on suspicion of using the fake passport, but within weeks they released the Armenian native instead of sending him back for trial, Shamlyan said. Responding to pressure from the FBI, Armenian police arrested Akopyan again this year, and this time they plan to try him in Armenia for the Hollywood shooting.
“I would prefer he get tried here, but I’m glad he’s not going to walk scot-free after killing a human being here,” Shamlyan said. “There’s
going to be some sort of justice for the victim and the family.”
In 2003, Armenia abolished the death penalty to honor a commitment made when it joined the Council of Europe. That could complicate any future efforts to extradite suspects from Armenia, if a treaty gets negotiated.
“Our biggest problem with other countries is the fact that we will not forgo the death penalty,” University of Southern California law professor Edwin Smith said. “Countries will not extradite precisely for that reason.”
From the American side, there are other roadblocks to a treaty, not only with Armenia but also with Russia and other former Soviet bloc countries.
“We currently don’t have any extradition treaties with countries in that region,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Pasadena. “So I don’t know if Armenia will be the first or Armenia will follow others.”
Before U.S. officials sign an extradition treaty with a country, they need assurances Americans would get a fair trial if sent there. The U.S. government is helping Armenia strengthen the rule of law, build its democracy and bolster an independent judiciary, Schiff said.
“All of those things I think are improvements that will eventually lead to an extradition agreement one day,” he said.
Until then, U.S. authorities and their Armenian counterparts cooperate on a case-by-case basis, and Southern California police say Armenian authorities have been helpful.
In cases where the suspect is not an Armenian citizen, authorities there will often expel the suspect. In cases where the suspect can claim Armenian citizenship, suspects sometimes return voluntarily to the United States because they’re out of money or wish to avoid harsh time in an Armenian prison.
Through cooperation between U.S. and Armenian authorities, five suspects have ended up back in Southern California to face trial for violent crimes since 2004, according to the FBI.
Since local prosecutors aren’t obligated to pay to return suspects from countries with which the United States doesn’t have extradition treaties, the FBI has created a program to pay for those airline tickets. It’s called Project Welcome Home.