It's a decade this month since La Crescenta resident Frank Hoogenhuizen discovered the bodies of Blaine Talmo Jr., 14, of La Crescenta, and Christopher McCulloch, 13, of La Cañada Flintridge, but time has done nothing to ease the memory.
Hoogenhuizen and his wife, Grace, spent July 23, 2000, inside, avoiding the sweltering summer heat. At 8 p.m. he ventured into the yard, glanced over his back wall and saw two neighborhood boys lying on the playground blacktop at Valley View Elementary School, which abuts his property.
"I said, 'Hey guys, it's getting dark. Are you asleep?" Hoogenhuizen recalled.
What he saw after looking closer made him pause — there was a large rock pressed up against one of the boy's heads, which was badly discolored. The other boy was splayed under the playground slide. A 12-foot-long bench rested on top of him, one of the metal legs across his throat.
Hoogenhuizen's 911 call would touch off a criminal investigation that at one point included more than half a dozen suspects. It also launched a media frenzy, with journalists canvassing the crime scene and the surrounding neighborhood.
And for the families of the victims, and the family of then-15-year-old Michael Demirdjian, who was eventually convicted of the crimes, it was the start of an unending nightmare filled with painful questions, some of which remain unanswered 10 years later.
Building, challenging a case
Deputy Dist. Atty. Steve Barshop said it was a drug deal gone bad. Demirdjian was angry after fronting $660 for drugs but getting nothing in return from the alleged dealer, a 19-year-old named Adam Walker. Demirdjian plotted to get his money back by ambushing Walker, the prosecutor argued.
There were cell phone records, dozens of phone calls to another La Crescenta teen who suppossedly contributed part of the money, which Barshop said proved Demirdjian was making a drug deal. And the dispute culminated with the beating to death of McCulloch and Talmo, the latter of whom had allegedly introduced Demirdjian to Walker.
Demirdjian, who lived one block from the crime scene, told investigators that he saw the murders but did not participate. The three boys spent July 22, 2000, hanging out together at various locations around La Crescenta, he said. That evening they met up with Walker at Valley View Elementary, where they drank alcohol and smoked marijuana.
Walker and McCulloch began to argue, it escalated into violence and Talmo tried to intervene, Demirdjian said. Walker viciously attacked the pair, choking one and striking them in the head with a rock. Walker tossed him Talmo's wallet, Demirdjian said, and then he ran home terrified.
Walker was never charged with the murders, nor did prosecutors present a case that put him at the scene. Instead, they focused on building a case around Demirdjian.
The first trial, in April 2001 at the Pasadena Superior Court, ended in an 8-4 hung jury. During a retrial seven months later, however, a jury convicted Demirdjian at the San Fernando Courthouse. Superior Court Judge Ronald S. Coen sentenced him to two consecutive 25-years-to-life terms.
"Sir, you've committed a crime like a man, and now you'll be treated and punished as a man," Coen said.
Could he have done it alone?
Defense attorney Charles T. Mathews continues to describe Demirdjian's conviction as a gross "miscarriage of justice." The victims were friends of his client, Mathews said. And Demirdjian was the same age and size as Talmo and McCulloch — the pair would have had the ability to defend themselves. A teenager of modest stature could not have killed two people in such a physical way, he said.
"What all those people who say there had to be two people are struggling with is the reality that it just doesn't make sense that Michael could do it alone," Mathews said. "And they are right, because he couldn't have done it alone. But a much older, bigger, powerful guy could have, and did."
Stacked against his client, Mathews said, was the fact that he was half black, and the adopted son of Armenian parents. Further, investigators and prosecutors may have felt pressured to win a conviction because Talmo was the son of a Los Angeles County sheriff's sergeant, Mathews said.
"It was a sensational, horrific crime," Mathews said. "And unfortunately, I think they have convicted an innocent person."
Glendale Police Sgt. Dennis Smith, the lead investigator in the case, said the forensic evidence against Demirdjian was conclusive. The scene was extremely bloody, Smith recalled, and there were nine bloody shoeprints leading away from the playground. Investigators found in a trash can at the Demirdjian house a pair of laundered shoes with treads that matched the prints at the school.
Blood was also found at the Demirdjian home, including on a screen door, on the living room wall and on the boy's pillow, Smith said. And they also found in his possession Talmo's Quiksilver wallet and alarm clock.
"The evidence was spot on," Smith said. "I can't tell you how many times he told us falsehoods … Initially he said he was never at Valley View school. It wasn't until I confronted him with some evidence that he said he was."
Even after Demirdjian's conviction, prosecutors said he did not act alone and promised additional arrests. They never came. When asked about additional suspects, Smith said he was confident the responsible party was behind bars.
"There was no physical evidence linking anyone else to the crime," Smith said.
A painful legacy
Demirdjian's parents, Gary and Sossi, still live in the same house, just down the street from Valley View Elementary. Sossi said she visits her son, now 25, at a state prison every week. And the family continues to invest every resource, including hiring noted attorney Mark Geragos, to prove their son's innocence.
Talmo's parents, Blaine and Alana, have maintained a low profile since testifying in the murder trials. Aileen Bristow, McCulloch's mother, is an active member of the Crescenta Valley Drug and Alcohol Coalition. Last year, she spoke publicly at Crescenta Valley High School about her son's death. All three declined to comment for this story, but have stated in court and in interviews during the last decade that Demirdjian's conviction did little to lessen their grief.
Last week, friends and family gathered at a private home in La Crescenta to mark the anniversary of the boys' deaths.
Will Moffitt, who heads the Community Prevention Council of La Cañada Flintridge, said the murders sent shockwaves through the foothill community. But the incident did help open a dialogue about drug and alcohol abuse among local teens, he said.
"It's certainly galvanized members of the La Cañada community to try and make our families and community safe for everyone," Moffitt said.