A single text message sent by a teenager set the deadly night in motion.Within hours, the 19-year-old was dead, his skull pierced by a bullet.
The 2009 shooting garnered national attention and resulted in the first-degree murder convictions of two men who prosecutors say took offense to the text and killed the teen in an “execution-style” attack in a Sears parking lot in North Hollywood.
But now those convictions have been thrown into doubt.
Two key eyewitnesses say they lied during the trial about what they saw the night of the killing, according to a Times review of court records and transcripts.
Attorneys for the convicted men argue that the new evidence shows that Mike Yepremyan’s death was an accident and that he was shot by his own gun during a struggle with one of the men. The lawyers are asking a judge to throw out the murder convictions.
Prosecutors say the guilty verdicts should stand and that the recantations can’t be trusted. The witnesses backtracked from their new version of events when district attorney’s investigators confronted them and surreptitiously recorded them, according to prosecutors.
Now a judge must weigh the conflicting and shifting stories about that night to decipher what really happened and decide whether the two men were rightfully convicted or if there might have been a terrible injustice.
The events of Nov. 18, 2009, began with a callow insult.
Yepremyan had gotten off work early and hoped to see his girlfriend. He was annoyed when she told him she was headed to a Burbank hookah lounge with her friend Kat Vardanian, whom he disliked.
In his text to his girlfriend, he made it known: “Every time u hang out with that bitch u guys get hookah I don’t understand it is there something cool bout her n hookah that u enjoy so much?”
Vardanian saw the text almost immediately after it flashed up on her friend’s phone. Angry and offended, she said she was going to call her brother to beat him up.
The phone calls to Yepremyan came in soon after. Strangers pressed him on why he called Vardanian a bitch. A meeting was arranged at the Sears parking lot to resolve the dispute.
Yepremyan began recruiting friends for backup. Guys who were tough, who would understand that the talk could get ugly. Five people showed up to support him.
Soon, two men rolled up in a black BMW with tinted windows and no front license plate.
The confrontation began peacefully with handshakes and a conversation, but quickly turned physical. Punches were thrown. A gunshot went off. A bullet flew through the back of Yepremyan’s head, leaving him twitching on the asphalt in a pool of blood as the two men fled in the BMW.
Police found a 9-mm shell casing near the victim, but were never able to find the gun.
Vardanian’s cousin Vahagn Jurian and his friend Zareh Manjikian were charged with murder. At their trial, all five of the victim’s wingmen testified that they heard a loud bang during the fight in the lot. No one saw a gun.
The prosecutor argued that the weapon belonged to Manjikian, who witnesses said had been keeping his hands in his pockets before the fight and was throwing a punch when the gun was fired.
“There’s a saying about alcohol, about liquid courage,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Ed Nison said in his closing arguments. “Well, having that 9-millimeter handgun gave Zareh Manjikian a different kind of courage, and that’s why he wasn’t afraid to push things.”
Both men were convicted by a jury and sent to prison for life.
With the verdict, any dispute over what happened appeared settled. But a lawsuit filed by the victim’s family against the two convicted men led to fresh questions.
Days before the witnesses were scheduled to be deposed, the lawsuit was abruptly dismissed at the request of the Yepremyan family.