How feds choreographed an elaborate fake murder to stop L.A. developer's alleged plot

VALENCIA, CA - SEPTEMBER 21: Mark Young, 67, attorney with Donahoe Young and Williams, at his office on Wednesday, Sept. 21, 2022 in Valencia, CA. Young was one of the two intended targets in a murder for hire plot by Arthur Aslanian, 53, of La Canada Flintridge. Aslanian has been arrested on a federal criminal complaint alleging he attempted to arrange the killings of a attorney Mark Young and a real estate banker to which he owed hundreds of thousands of dollars. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Attorney Mark Young was one of two intended targets in an alleged murder-for-hire plot by Arthur Aslanian. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Arthur Aslanian wasn't taking any chances when he met his employee, Sesar Rivera, on the side of a road earlier this month.

Only after patting Rivera down to check if he was wearing a wire and making him leave his phone in Aslanian's pickup truck did he look at the photograph Rivera had brought.

It was a gruesome image of a dead man who had been shot in the face.

The real estate developer studied the photo to make sure it was the proof he wanted. "That's him, man, that's him,” he said.

Rivera asked Aslanian what to do with the photo.

"F— shred it," Aslanian responded.

Aslanian left the roadside meeting believing the photo confirmed that a plan he set in motion had succeeded, according to an account of the meeting provided by the U.S. attorney's office. The man in the photo was a banker who had been fighting to recoup about $3 million Aslanian owed him. Instead of paying, prosecutors allege, Aslanian had hired an assassin.

Aslanian, however, had just been fooled.

Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives had been tracking him for months and had nabbed Rivera weeks earlier as he was trying to find a hit man for his boss, authorities said. Rivera had agreed to cooperate with the investigation and, despite the pat-down, Aslanian failed to find the two recording devices agents had concealed on him that captured the chilling exchange, according to federal prosecutors.

And the banker was alive and well. The photograph was the work of a makeup artist — the coup de grace of a straight-out-of-Hollywood ruse agents had devised to ensnare Aslanian.

Hours after his meeting with Rivera, Aslanian was arrested at his upscale La Cañada Flintridge home. He was indicted Thursday along with Rivera on two counts of conspiracy to commit murder for hire. Prosecutors allege that on top of plotting to kill the business associate, who is identified by his initials S.E. in court papers, Aslanian planned to have another man killed as well.

A large white home
Aslanian lives with his wife in a well-kept, two-story house on a street lined with pine trees in the rolling hills of La Cañada Flintridge. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

"Mr. Aslanian denies all the allegations against him and maintains his innocence," said Melanie Killedjian, Aslanian's attorney in the criminal case.

Weeks earlier, Aslanian's other alleged target, attorney Mark Young, was in court when he got a message: ATF agents wanted to meet with him. Immediately.

As the longtime bankruptcy lawyer drove from the courthouse in Alhambra to the ATF's Glendale office, he and his assistant Hallie Browne tried to determine if he was being scammed. The pressing reality did not settle over Young until he and Browne exited the elevator and he saw the ornate carpet of the ATF office emblazoned with the Department of Justice's insignia. Several agents sat them down in a conference room, Young recalled.

"We need to inform you that you’re the intended victim in a murder-for-hire plot," Young said the agents told him. "There’s a hit that’s been put out for you."

The color drained from Young's face, Browne recalled.

The agents asked if he knew Aslanian.

Young told them he had represented Aslanian in a bankruptcy proceeding from 2018 to 2021. Aslanian, he said, was refusing to pay more than $250,000 he owed in legal fees. Young had last contacted Aslanian about the debt in April, when he sent him a letter detailing how much he owed and putting him on notice that he could be sued.

The agents informed Young that Aslanian had launched a plan to hire a hit man to have him killed. They did not tell him Aslanian was also planning the murder of another man.

While he knew Aslanian to be an aggressive businessman, Young had never seen a violent side of him, he said.

"I was scared. I didn't know whether I should go into witness protection or something. When I told my wife, we were shaken and spent the next three nights at a hotel," Young said in an interview.

The diminutive developer, described by tenants as standing just a few inches above 5 feet, lives with his wife in a well-kept, two-story house on a street lined with pine trees in the rolling hills of La Cañada Flintridge. Photos of Aslanian with his daughters line the front hall alongside diplomas. On a recent day, a white terrier barked at the door.

When reached by The Times, a colleague described Aslanian as a "family man" and was incredulous that he had been arrested.

People who live at properties Aslanian owns, however, were less surprised. Several renters described him as a "slumlord" who mistreated them.

A woman and man sit on a front porch
Clare Letmon and Jonpaul Rodriguez, who live at a North Hollywood apartment complex owned by Aslanian, are on a rent strike. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

"He’s been harassing a lot of his tenants," said Jonpaul Rodriguez, who lives with his wife in a bungalow complex Aslanian owns in North Hollywood. The couple are currently on a rent strike. "He is a slumlord."

Rodriguez and his wife, Clare Letmon, claim that Aslanian has allowed the property to fall into disrepair so that he can demolish it and build a larger complex. Raccoons live in some of the empty bungalows, and the tenants say that Aslanian ripped out parts of the walls while tenants were living inside. Some of the bungalows on the property are boarded up and red-tagged, and charred detritus is strewn about from a March fire.

Aslanian's checkered history at his properties dates back decades. He was charged with a misdemeanor in 1998 for allegedly failing to pay more than $100,000 to workers for repairs at a homeless shelter in Koreatown. His company was found guilty of a labor code violation in the case, court records show.

He was busted again in 2007 after another one of his companies was found to have violated city rules requiring building permits. The company was placed on probation for a year, according to court documents from that case.

On top of the criminal cases, Aslanian and his companies have been named as defendants in lawsuits more than two dozen times, court records show.

Nonetheless, Aslanian continued to grow his real estate portfolio. He owns three adjacent plots on Hartsook Street in North Hollywood through a company, Andalucia Project LLC, according to property records. He also owns a handful of other properties throughout the San Fernando Valley, including a modern apartment building a few blocks away, records show.

The side of a building shows charring
Some of the bungalows on the property are boarded up and red-tagged, and charred detritus is strewn about from a March fire. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

But Aslanian was also building a mountain of debt. On top of the legal fees Young said he owed, Aslanian owed S.E. nearly $3 million over a dispute involving a Brentwood property that led to years of litigation, according to a judge's ruling in the case.

During an interview with ATF agents, Rivera recounted how Aslanian had explained to him that he wanted S.E. killed because he believed the man was a "piece of s—" and a "no good motherf—" who "probably deserves it," according to the criminal complaint.

At Aslanian's behest, Rivera in April approached a gang member both men knew to carry out the killings, prosecutors allege. The gang member, who is not identified in court records, had convictions for assault with a deadly weapon, burglary and other crimes, according to the complaint.

After Rivera explained what Aslanian wanted done, the gang member responded that he was interested in the job. The two met again in July and Rivera informed the would-be killer that Aslanian wanted the men killed "as quickly as possible," according to the complaint.

At the meeting, Rivera pulled up a photo of Young online and confirmed for the gang member that Young was the lawyer Aslanian wanted dead, the complaint said.

The two negotiated a $20,000 payment for Young's murder. The gang member asked for half the money to be paid in advance, but Rivera refused, saying Aslanian would only pay when Young was dead, the complaint said.

And, he added, his boss wanted "photographic proof" that the murder had taken place, according to the complaint.

Soon after, the gang member went to police. He spilled the plot and played a recording he had secretly made of the recent meeting with Rivera, according to the complaint. He claimed that he had planned to take Aslanian's money but not follow through with the killings, according to the criminal complaint. And he said he hoped that in exchange for bringing Aslanian and Rivera's plan to light he would be given leniency in a separate criminal case, the complaint said.

A man next to uncompleted construction on a building
Jonpaul Rodriguez says Aslanian has allowed the property to fall into disrepair so that he can demolish it and build a larger complex. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

The ATF opened an investigation into Aslanian and Rivera, and had the gang member, who is referred to in court documents as a cooperating witness, set up a meeting with Rivera on Aug. 24, the complaint said. He brought with him "a friend from Arizona" who told Rivera he could "get the job done," the complaint said.

The friend, an undercover agent with the ATF, tried to sell Rivera on his credentials, telling him he hung out with sicarios, Spanish for hired assassins, according to the complaint.

He offered Rivera different scenarios for the murders, the complaint said. It could be a burglary gone wrong or a road-rage incident.

Or he could just "cap the dude," the undercover agent suggested.

Aslanian didn't care how it got done, Rivera responded. Aslanian would pay for the killings but wanted nothing else to do with them, Rivera explained, according to the complaint.

"Whatever happens, accident, whatever," Rivera said, according to the complaint.

After the meeting, ATF surveillance teams tracked Rivera and Aslanian. They watched as the men drove later in the afternoon to Skinny's Lounge, a bar in North Hollywood. Agents took photos and videos as the men talked for several minutes in the bar's parking lot before driving off, the complaint said.

Exterior view of Skinny's Lounge in North Hollywood.
Exterior view of Skinny's Lounge in North Hollywood. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Authorities detained Rivera on Sept. 7. He told them that it had been the gang member who approached Rivera to ask if he needed someone to be "gotten rid of" — not the other way around. Rivera also said Aslanian only wanted to kill S.E. and not Young, whom he just wanted "intimidated."

Agents convinced Rivera to help them nab Aslanian. They hatched their plan.

The following day, they had Rivera wear a wire and meet with Aslanian, according to the complaint. Rivera informed Aslanian that the gang member was "going to handle" the murder of S.E., according to the complaint.

Aslanian reminded Rivera to be careful.

"Make sure [the gang member] and yourself have an alibi,” Aslanian said. “After today, we don’t talk about it ever again.”

With Aslanian believing the murder of S.E. was imminent, agents had S.E. made up to look like he had been shot and staged the photos of the killing.

Young said that agents asked him if he too would be game to stage his murder. He recalled them telling him that if he went along with the plan he would need to stay out of sight for up to a week. Agents suggested a trip to Palm Springs, Young said. He and his wife considered visiting Pismo Beach on the Central Coast.

He agreed to do it, but in the end, he said, agents told him it wasn't necessary because Aslanian wanted S.E. killed first.

Aslanian is being held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles without bail. Rivera was released on bond, according to his attorney.

Nobody was hurt, but the ordeal was jarring nonetheless for the 67-year-old Young. Throughout it all, he was allowed to tell only his wife and his assistant, who had joined him at the first meeting with the ATF, about what was happening. He and Browne would share knowing glances at the law office. She said she asked him for updates occasionally, but did not want to add to his stress.

With the murder plot foiled, Young said he feels he has cheated death three times in a year, having recovered from a pulmonary embolism and surgery for colon cancer.

"I don't know how many more of my nine lives I have," he said.

Times staff writer Jack Flemming contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.