November 26, 2008
Judge dismisses charges in ‘kidnap’ case
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge last week dismissed the criminal case against four Iranian American Jews. One woman and three men were accused of kidnapping and holding for ransom a man the defendants claimed had cheated them out of $100,000 in a business deal.
Judge Karen Nudell's decision to dismiss the case at the conclusion of the preliminary hearing brought to a close an ordeal that began Sept. 29, the morning before Rosh Hashanah, for Jamshid Daniali, 58; Parviz Daniali, 62; Hayame Lalezarian, 60; and Zhilla Lalezarian, 58.
By the Jewish New Year, all four were behind bars, each held on more than $1 million bail and facing charges that, if proven, could have resulted in life sentences.
The prosecution's case predominantly rested on the claims of Bension Vardi, an Afghan Jew who moved in recent years to Los Angeles from New York and used connections in the Jewish community to solicit investors in his diamond business. During the preliminary hearing, the defense targeted his credibility.
They presented an $81,000 judgment against Vardi in New York, after he had testified that he was unaware of any previous judgments, and demonstrated that earlier this year he made a similar claim of being held for ransom by a Beverly Hills woman who wanted her investment back.
"Every time he testified, his testimony changed again and again and again," said Alaleh Kamran, attorney for Jamshid Daniali.
At the Nov. 19 hearing, Nudell said Vardi lacked credibility as a witness and dismissed the case.
"Last night was the first good night of sleep I've gotten since this whole thing began," Rabbi Shlomo Lalezarian, Hayame and Zhilla Lalezarian's son and a leader of Mishkan Torah in Tazana, said the following day. "We are taught in Judaism: Be careful what you say. It is amazing how powerful words are and how far they can go -- how one person's accusations can destroy others' lives without really being verified."
Vardi, who did not return a call for comment, may soon be the object of a new set of legal proceedings. Lawyers for the former defendants said they are considering filing a civil suit against Vardi.
"These people suffered a lot, and not just these people but the community, too. And this was during High Holidays," said Shalem Shen-Tov, a lawyer the Lalezarians have spoken with about pursuing damages. "They have a right to make him pay for what he did."
According to a police report, Vardi told officers that the Danialis and Lalezarians each had invested $43,500 in his diamond business. (They said it was $50,000.) It wasn't clear from the report what they received for the money, whether a stake in the company or their own franchise or just training, but after a few months, the Danialis and Lalezarians -- four of Vardi's dozens of investors -- demanded their money back.
Vardi reportedly said he would return the money after Rosh Hashanah, but they wanted their money back immediately. The day before the Jewish New Year, Vardi told police that Zhilla Lalezarian called twice and insisted that he come to their home to meet with a prospective jewelry buyer. According to the police report, Vardi traveled to the Lalezarians' Tarzana home in the 18200 block of Hatteras Street, bringing with him a bag filled with $2 million worth of diamonds and $6,000 cash.
Vardi claimed that after he parked in the driveway, another car boxed him in and, after a struggle in the street, Parviz and Jamshid Daniali dragged him into the house. There, he said, they and the Lalezarians wrestled with him for his jewelry bag.
"Suspects told him that if he attempted to escape from the house, they have a 'sniper' waiting outside to take him out," Los Angeles Police Officer Amir Abolfazlian wrote in his report.
Vardi's fiancée, though, had already called police. She told the police Vardi had called during the struggle and said he had been ambushed. A neighbor also heard the commotion outside and, after knocking on the door and being told by Zhilla Lalezarian that it was a "family dispute," called police.
"We felt there was enough evidence to at least take it to a jury," said Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. "We objected to the judge, but we respect her decision, so we will not be re-filing it."
During the seven-week period between the arrest and the dismissal, the case generated intense community interest. The day before Yom Kippur, when many L.A. Jews were readying for the fast, some 1,500 traveled by chartered bus and carpool to the Van Nuys Courthouse. Only about 30 were allowed into the hearing for reduced bail; the rest milled in the hallways and courtyard.
Despite the severity of the charges, the Danialis and Lalezarians had the support of community leaders from the outset.
"They are honest and law-abiding people without any criminal record," Rabbi David Shofet of Nessah Synagogue of Beverly Hills wrote in a letter to the court. "They respect their religion and have the utmost respect for the law and their new homeland."
The defendants eventually were released on $100,000 bail each -- Zhilla Lalezarian first, because she was undergoing chemotherapy, then the three men. During the preliminary hearing, Vardi returned their money. But the possibility of life in prison for the four persisted until the dismissal last week.
The defendants' family and friends said they were happy with the judge's decision. But their emotions were more relief than joy.
"The community was very concerned throughout the case," said Rabbi Netanel Louie of the Hebrew Discovery Center in Woodland Hills, who filed a police report saying Vardi threatened him. "They were concerned about the welfare of the accused, and the community knew from the beginning that they were innocent. Now that this case was dismissed, it shows that."
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