October 15, 2008
Investment ‘diamond deal’ ends as four jailed on kidnap charges
By the start of the Jewish New Year, they were behind bars, accused of assaulting, kidnapping and holding for ransom a fellow Jew, whom they claim cheated them out of $100,000.
Bail would be set at more than $1 million for each of the defendants: Jamshid Daniali, 58; Parviz Daniali, 62; Hayame Lalezarian, 60; and Zhilla Lalezarian, 58. They would plead not guilty.
Zhilla Lalezarian is free on bail after the judge dropped the amount to $100,000 because she is undergoing chemotherapy. The defense planned to seek reduced bail for the others Tuesday, but Tuesday evening, the motion had not been acted upon, and they were still being held in jail.
The District Attorney's Office alleges the defendants "lured" 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 -- to the Lalezarians' Tarzana home with the promise of a big buyer.
An hour later, a neighbor called the police, saying he saw Vardi carried into the house and heard cries for help. Vardi told authorities that if they "had not responded to the location, he would have been in pieces."
"This may have started as a dispute," said district attorney spokeswoman Jane Robison, "but we have evidence that he was roughed up and held against his will for a ransom of $4.5 million."
Alaleh Kamran, attorney for Zhilla Lalezarian, claims Vardi deliberately set up the defendants, that he arrived at a meeting they had called to get their investment back and then had his fiancée call police and claim that he had been kidnapped. The defense also claims that Vardi made the same accusations this year against a Beverly Hills woman who had asked for her investment back, but then dropped the case when he failed a polygraph test.
Documents from the case involving the Beverly Hills woman were given to the judge and prosecution Tuesday, but they were not made public. The Beverly Hills detective who provided the information to the defense did not return a call for comment. Messages left last week on Vardi's cellphone also were not returned.
The charges, which carry the possibility of life in prison, sent a shockwave through the local Iranian Jewish community. Though only 30 could attend the bail hearing on the case in Judge Karen Nudell's courtroom on Oct. 8, the day before Yom Kippur, about 1,500 community members showed up in support. Twenty returned on Tuesday, the first day of Sukkot, for the preliminary hearing. As religious Jews, they asked non-Jews to drive them.
"The community has a lot of respect for these people," said Rabbi Netanel Louie of Hebrew Discovery Center, who last week filed a police report alleging that Vardi threatened him for getting involved. "We just love everyone, and we don't want to see them behind bars on Yom Kippur and the High Holidays while nothing has been proven."
Exactly what led to the situation involving Vardi is unclear.
Vardi told police that Zhilla Lalezarian called him twice on the day before Rosh Hashanah, insisting that he come to their home to meet with a prospective jewelry buyer. In the report, Vardi said he trusted them because they are observant Jews, but when he parked in their driveway, another car parked behind his and boxed him in.
Vardi claims a scuffle ensued, and that he was carried into the house. There, he alleges, they wrestled with him for his bag, which he said contained $2 million in diamonds and jewelry, as well as $6,000 cash.
"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.
A neighbor of the Lalezarians heard a commotion at the residence in the 18200 block of Hatteras Street and reportedly saw Parviz and Jamshid Daniali carry Vardi to the house. He knocked on the door, and after Zhilla Lalezarian told him it was a "family dispute," he heard Vardi say, according to his statement to police, "Don't leave me."
The witness, who did not return a message left at his law office, called police. Vardi's fiancée, whom Vardi said he dialed when he decided he was being ambushed, also had phoned police.
However, their son claims Vardi had a seizure on his parents' quiet cul-de-sac and that he had been assisted into the house, not dragged. He also said the home has no window coverings and that the goings-on inside would be visible to anyone walking by.
Kamran said her office had been flooded with calls from individuals in the community who claim they were scammed by Vardi.
"About eight, nine months ago, this man came to one of the temples. He said, 'I have a diamond mine. I'm going to cut it,'" said Mousa Kohan, 61, of Los Angeles.
Kohan was interested and began investing time with Vardi, visiting a small office he had in Beverly Hills and introducing Vardi to directors of Iranian and Afghan television stations. Then, one day, Vardi held a seminar and, Kohan said, he told everyone to write a $1,200 check for membership in his diamond business.
"He said he had a contract with a diamond mine," Kohan said. "He would mine it and cut it, and then he would share the money with all the members. After one year, he said you could make more than $100,000."
Kohan didn't bite. Then last week, a friend asked him to go with him to the Van Nuys Courthouse to support some Iranian Jews accused of assaulting and holding for ransom a man whom they said defrauded them in a phony diamond business.
"When I heard that, I got so mad," said Kohan, who went to school in Iran with Parviz Daniali.
Yet, many of the faces in court, rabbinic and lay leaders from the Iranian Jewish community, have avoided assigning guilt.
"I'm helping to make shalom between two sides," said Dara Abaei, executive director of the Jewish Unity Network.
Asked if he thought the defendants were innocent, Abaei shrugged his shoulders and pursed his lips: "No comment. That is for the judge to decide."