Monday. December 11, 2006
Prisoner Admits Trying to Extort Money From Two Local Lawyers
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
A convicted con artist currently serving a 143-month sentence in federal prison faces up to five more years behind bars for trying to extort money and other items from two local criminal defense attorneys, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Friday.
Steven Robert Comisar, 44, pled guilty Thursday to carrying out an extortion scheme by mail against mid-Wilshire attorney Melanie Baghdaian and Santa Monica lawyer William Genego by claiming he could help exonerate Baghdaian’s brother of murder charges.
The brother, Jerry Killedjian, has been serving a life prison sentence for the 1992 killing of a government informant named Daryoush “Jessie” Khorrami. Genego represents Killedjian in a habeas corpus petition filed in the case.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Edward Moreton Jr. told the MetNews he did not believe Comisar targeted Baghdaian and Genego because of their profession.
“I think he saw an opportunity to make money and took it,” he said. “I know they are relieved to know that Mr. Comisar is being held accountable for his actions.”
In addition to the five-year sentence, Comisar could be sentenced to up to 3 years of supervised release and receive a $250,000 fine. He is scheduled to be sentenced on April 9 by U.S. District Judge George P. Schiavelli.
Comisar admitted to sending Baghdaian a letter from Metropolitan Detention Center in October 2003, while he was awaiting sentencing on his most recent fraud conviction, saying a former cellmate had confessed to Khorrami’s murder. Telling her and Genego that he believed Killedjian was innocent, Comisar offered to help them for free by providing exculpatory information and a signed declaration.
Later, however the inmate threatened to retract his declaration and withhold the information if Baghdaian and her family did not pay him $50,000 or more.
When the lawyers told him they would not pay for his testimony because they could be accused of suborning perjury, he sent them a series of letters, starting in November 2003, making various demands and threats.
According to the plea agreement, Comisar ordered Baghdaian to pay his mother large sums of money, and demanded that Genego file a legal brief on his behalf and help him obtain a reduction of his sentence. If they did not comply with his requests, he threatened to retract his declaration and tell the authorities he made a mistake and now believed Killedjian was guilty.
The inmate also threatened to destroy the attorneys’ reputations and damage them professionally. In one letter dated March 16, 2004, he warned that if Baghdaian and Genego did not “keep [their] end of the bargain,” he would file an official complaint with the State Bar accusing them of agreeing to pay him for his testimony.
In June 2004, Comisar sent Baghdaian a letter entitled “COLLECTION OF MONIES OWED ME,” in which he threatened to send his “associates in New York” to collect $75,000 from her if she did not pay $50,000 by a certain date.
He then convinced a fellow inmate, William Dorman, to send his stepson “Tarpey”—as he was identified in the plea agreement—to Baghdaian’s home to scare her and her husband into paying the $50,000.
Comisar had lied, telling Dorman he was trying to get back a $50,000 retainer from Baghdaian who had represented him in a criminal case. He promised to give him and his stepson about $15,000 for their assistance in recovering the money, and also told him his lawyer could help Dorman obtain a shorter sentence.
Following Comisar’s written instructions, Tarpey and a friend on Father’s Day went to Baghdaian’s house to tell her if she did not pay Comisar’s mother $10,000 within 10 days, the “Genovese” crime family would come to collect $75,000 later.
Comisar subsequently sent another letter to Baghdaian demanding payment, and several more letters to Tarpey outlining further scare tactics to be dispensed against her. The specific instructions included having a single back rose sent to her and bullying her and her husband over the phone.
Moreton said Comisar had no personal connections to Baghdaian’s brother, and learned about his case through other inmates.
Comisar has been charged and convicted of numerous telemarketing fraud schemes, including one in which he allegedly swindled a retired Minneapolis businessman out of nearly $500,000.
In the 1990s, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said, Comisar under the pseudonym “Brett Champion” authored a book entitled America’s Guide to Fraud Prevention, which spelled out numerous schemes he previously perpetrated and offered advice on how to avoid being conned. The book landed him spots on several television shows, including “Dateline NBC,” where he—as reformed con artist Brett Champion—appeared as a fraud-prevention expert.
Baghdaian did not return a MetNews phone call. Genego declined comment.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company