Missing dog case morphs into felony charges, exposes violent past

The story begins with a wayward German shepherd named General.

A year ago, police say, Sarkis Agasarkisian, a politically connected Atlanta jeweler, stole the dog after it ran away from a nearby home in an upscale Mount Paran neighborhood.

Agasarkisian, a volunteer Fulton County deputy, was initially charged with theft of lost or mislaid property. But that charge has morphed into a case chock full of intrigue and political influence. Unanswered questions about Agasarkisian’s violent past have come tumbling out of court records from here to California.

Agasarkisian faces a public integrity prosecution for allegedly influencing a witness, violating his oath as a peace officer and making false statements by not divulging a prior voluntary manslaughter conviction.

Revelations of his prior conviction have stunned those who worked for decades alongside him in his job as a volunteer deputy, as well as members of Atlanta’s political elite who benefited from Agasarkisian’s help on their campaigns. In yet another unusual twist, former Mayors Andrew Young and Bill Campbell reached out privately to judges to try to help Agasarkisian obtain a bond that prosecutors opposed, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

Fulton Sheriff Ted Jackson said the attention given Agasarkisian by various law enforcement agencies makes him wonder if there is more to the case than a dog dispute and a oath of office violation.

After arrest warrants were issued for Agasarkisian in June, he was later arrested in California. He said he had gone to visit his aunt, who was ill. Prosecutors, however, said Agasarkisian shut down his business and moved out of his house before leaving town. The Department of Homeland Security helped find Agasarkisian in California. Prosecution witnesses in the dog theft case — illegal immigrants — are now receiving local police protection, he said.

“It is just a gut reaction that somebody has stepped into something,” said Jackson, the former FBI special agent in charge in Atlanta. “If the prosecution goes forward, maybe it will come out.”

Agasarkisian’s lawyer, Drew Findling, said his client is “beyond innocent” of all charges, which were brought because of shoddy police work and unreliable witnesses.

“I think we have let a civil dispute blossom into a criminal case,” Findling said. “In a city that is vastly and efficiently trying to fight sex crime, violent drug crime and alleged fraud in our school system, authorities should focus on that and leave small claims court for puppy litigation.”

Agasarkisian (a-ga-sar-KEE-si-an), 56, immigrated from Armenia in 1979 and nine years later embedded himself into the law enforcement community here, enlisting as a reserve deputy. He often worked at the jail and assisted the fugitive task force, a former supervisor said.

Jackson said he immediately terminated Agasarkisian as a reserve deputy when he learned a warrant had been issued for his arrest. “Of course, I was shocked because he was walking around with a gun on.”

For decades, Agasarkisian ran a jewelry business he took over from his now-deceased father. Court records say he also owns Metro State Financial, a short-term loan and collection agency, and sits on the board of Metro City Bank.

Agasarkisian has led the Armenian National Committee of Georgia, which has gained him entrée into the offices of prominent political figures. In recent years, the committee hosted events at the state Capitol comemorating the genocide of Armenians in early 1900s.

Agasarkisian is no stranger to controversy. A decade ago, he enraged his Mount Paran neighbors by cutting down trees and piling dump-truck loads of rocks on his West Conway Drive property to build a sprawling driveway. The city threatened him with more than $1 million in fines and possible jail time for not obtaining proper permits. But a judge ruled he broke no city laws.

Agasarkisian’s jewelry business, The Best Jewelry Manufacturing Corp., was sued in 2004 by three bulk diamond dealers from India who contended Best Jewelry paid for only two of five deliveries.

In 2008, a Fulton jury returned a $1 million verdict against Best Jewelry. When Agasarkisian later said Best Jewelry was out of business, the Indian companies filed suit against him individually. If forced to pay, Agasarkisian “will be financially wiped out,” one of his court filings says. The case is set for trial in December.

Agasarkisian’s criminal charges stem from the purebred German shepherd that was 2 years old when it ran through an invisible fence late one night in August 2012. General’s owners, Philip and Kimberly Brunson, posted fliers throughout the neighborhood and hired a pet detective to find their dog, court records say.

General was missing 109 days when the Brunsons got a call from a woman who worked for Agasarkisian. She told them their dog was dying, court records say. Philip Brunson drove up to the Agasarkisian home where the emaciated General, his fur in tatters, stood waiting at the front door. The dog received medical treatment and is now OK, court records say.

Agasarkisian faces a misdemeanor charge of animal cruelty for allegedly not giving General proper medical attention, although Findling contends Agasarkisian’s family tried to treat the dog for mange. Agasarkisian also is accused of allegedly telling the woman who called General’s owners he would have her deported if she cooperated with authorities.

While prosecutors were looking for Agasarkisian when he was in California, they learned he had a criminal past, court records say. In the early 1980s, he was charged in California with the murder of one individual and assaulting another with a handgun. In 1984, he pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to serve two years in prison.

That disclosure led to additional charges. In 1988, when Agasarkisian applied to become a member of the Fulton sheriff’s reserve, he made a false statement when he said he had never been arrested or detained, the indictment says. In 1994, he gave the same answer to the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, the indictment says.

During a July 15 bond hearing, Assistant District Attorney Jay Hughes said Agasarkisian’s prior conviction went undetected for decades because his criminal history had been”disconnected” from his FBI identification number. Instead, it was, for reasons that could not be determined, attached to the ID number of another inmate at same prison that housed Agasarkisian, Hughes said.

Agasarkisian’s current case was initially assigned to Superior Court Judge Alford Dempsey. Young — the former mayor and United Nations ambassador — telephoned the judge on Agasarkisian’s behalf before a bond hearing.

In an interview, Young said he called Dempsey after Agasarkisian was extradited from California and put in the Fulton jail. Young said he wanted to help set up a hearing so Agasarkisian obtain a bond.

“I really consider myself a family friend,” Young said. “I don’t even know what he was arrested for, but he is not a flight risk.”

Dempsey said there was nothing he could do, Young said. Days later, Dempsey also recused himself in Agasarkisian’s case.

The case was then assigned to Superior Court Judge Henry Newkirk, who scheduled Agasarkisian’s bond hearing for July 15. That morning, Campbell, the ex-mayor who served 26 months in federal prison for tax evasion, paid Newkirk a visit in his chambers.

The state canons of judicial ethics discourage judges from engaging in discussions with one party about aspects of a case outside the presence of someone representing other side. Campbell told Newkirk he wanted to talk on Agasarkisian’s behalf.

Hours later, Newkirk disclosed the conversation during the bond hearing. Newkirk said he asked Campbell if he thought Agasarkisian would return to court if granted a bond. Campbell replied that he “absolutely” believed Agasarkisian would do so, Newkirk said.

The judge granted the bond. He also instructed Agasarkisian to surrender his passport and not have any contact with witnesses in his case, including General’s owners.