Life with Father Was Nasty, Brutish and Scary, So Johnny Junatanov Tried to Have Him Murdered—Repeatedly

updated 01/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/19/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Westwood is a pleasant neighborhood, one of the few in Los Angeles where people walk out of choice, not because their cars are in the shop. They are lured there by the attractive stores and the even more attractive UCLA students, and many pause during the day to enjoy a light lunch at a spot where a small, dark, deferential young man waits on tables. You'd like him. His name is Johnny Junatanov, and a police investigator says he tried to have his father murdered eight or nine times.

Johnny, 19, laughs at the very idea. He has a nice laugh, not at all sinister. He says, "Every day they come up with a new one," a new murder attempt he has yet to hear about. He says he tried to have his father killed three, maybe four times, that's all.

Last fall Johnny went on trial in Los Angeles, charged with attempted murder and solicitation to murder. He was on the witness stand for nearly two days, and he admitted that he hired people to stab, shoot and inject battery acid into his father. He testified that his father had abused him, his brother and his mother almost every day of their lives. His father, Albert Junatanov, 47, also testified. He said he struck Johnny only once, in 1979, and that was a spanking. Under cross-examination by Johnny's Beverly Hills defense attorney, Joel Isaacson, Albert denied that he ever punched, chained, raped or beat Johnny with a belt. "I never tried to do any harm," he said. "My only purpose was always to make them happy."

The jury of five men and seven women found Johnny innocent of all charges, believing he acted in self-defense. All the other people involved in the attempts on Albert's life, except one who was granted immunity, eventually pleaded guilty or were found guilty. Most are in jail.

Attorney Paul Mones, an expert on parricide who was a consultant for Johnny's defense, says it is the only case he knows of in which a child accused of trying to murder a parent has been acquitted by a jury. "This case is typical," Mones says, "of a growing number of cases where severely abused adolescents strike back to protect themselves." He says that about 2 to 3 percent of all murders committed in the U.S. are parricides. "These children are forced to act in self-defense, because they never know if the next blow will be fatal."

In the family of Albert Junatanov, the blows apparently fell early and often. It all started with Albert's courtship. He and Johnny's mother, Firuza, now 41, lived in Dushanbe, a Soviet city near the Afghanistan border. Firuza was a young girl of 16, already a dancer of some local fame, she says, when Albert showed up at her home and put a knife to her mother's throat. Firuza says she had never seen him before, but he announced, "I want to marry your daughter. If I don't, I will kill you, I will kill your daughter." Firuza describes an unconventional engagement in which Albert threatened her with an axe, broke dishes in her house and hinted that he might run her over with his motorcycle. Their wedding was not well attended.

Life was uncomfortable in the Soviet Union, but for once the authorities could not be blamed. Albert went to jail for deserting the army. Firuza says he went to jail again for throwing her from a roof after she became pregnant. "I lost my baby, broke my foot," she reports, pointing to a slight deformity near her right ankle. She says that when she mentioned divorce, he took out a knife. "What he say, I do. What he want, I do. I scared of him." According to Albert's testimony, she had nothing to fear: "Before you hit a woman, you should hit a wall." The marriage endured, and the family left the Soviet Union in 1972, emigrating first to Israel, next to Belgium, finally to the United States. She says that wherever they lived, neither friends nor neighbors helped her, so afraid were they of Albert.

"This man is very dangerous," says Firuza. "Maybe he will sit down smiling, but then he will find a small mistake..."

"...Maybe a dish is dirty," interrupts her older son, Oscar, 22. "He fights. Hit, hit, hit."

"First he will yell," corrects Johnny, "then he starts in on what you did yesterday..."

"...Then two days before, then one year before, then he starts hitting," says Oscar.

Albert is a small man, about 5'3", but Johnny describes him as tough and fearless. "You can see it in his eyes," Johnny says. "He gets mad, you get scared of him." He says Albert often got in fights, and he only saw him lose once, when their Yugoslavian landlord hit him over the head with a pipe. Oscar, a young man strong from lifting weights, says that if his father were suddenly to come through the door, he would run the other way.

The Junatanov family arrived in New York in 1976 and two years later opened a restaurant named Firuz, after Firuza, who prepared meals during the day and danced at night. Johnny and his mother tell how one night, after a customer waited too long for a strawberry topping for a blintz, Albert became so enraged he took Firuza down into the basement of their home, made her stand on a chair, put a rope around her neck, threw the rope over a pipe and threatened to hang her. A New York Times critic once reviewed the restaurant and described the service as "good-natured."

In 1982 the family opened a larger restaurant of the same name. Johnny says this restaurant had an extravagant customer who came often and bought Dom Pérignon. Albert, cultivating him, instructed Firuza to sit with him and pretend she was his sister, a widow with two children. "My father made him an offer, that he could go to bed with her for $3,000," Johnny says. "I was behind the bar and overheard. I told my mom to leave and go to Israel."

Firuza says that she always stood by Albert, despite the abuse, because she grew up without a father and she did not want the same life for her children. "In my country, you give respect to your husband, every husband is the boss." She says she could accept beatings but not disgrace. "What kind of husband is it who can sell his wife?" she wonders. "If he kills me, it is better than I go to a different man. I think he is not a man; he is an animal." One night she snuck out of the house carrying only her coat and her passport and took a plane to Israel. "My children call me, they say, 'Mommy, don't come back, he will kill you.' "

With Firuza gone, says Johnny, Albert became worse, "more crazy." Johnny testified that Albert raped him to demonstrate to Firuza what would happen to her children if she didn't return. Still she stayed away. Albert packed up his sons and moved to California, where he opened the London New York Shawarama Restaurant at 6711 Hollywood Boulevard, about where Yvonne De Carlo's name is emblazoned on the Walk of Fame. "We were selling cheeseburgers," says Johnny. "After a month, he started selling girls." He and Oscar tell how Albert began dressing in pinstripe suits, sporting white-on-black, calling himself "Alberto, the godfather of Hollywood." The girls, says Johnny, were runaways, 14 and 15 years old, working out of a back room, giving most of their profits to Albert. "He would give drugs to the girls, coke and marijuana, and they would sell it," Johnny says.

The restaurant now has a new name and a new owner, who asked to be identified only by his nickname, "Sam." He says, "I still have problems with prostitutes coming here, seeing if I want to do the same deal. They say, 'You want to rent us rooms like Al did?' And a lot of drug dealers ask me what happened to the guy, if I also sell drugs."

Albert's near-fatal mistake in familial relations occurred one afternoon in 1985 when Oscar was making bread. Oscar says he forgot to put salt in the bread—he says his father slammed his head into walls so much he forgets to do a lot of things—so Albert smashed the dough in his face, punched him, threw him out. This was observed by Danny Solorzano, a restaurant employee who was later given immunity in exchange for his testimony at Johnny's trial. According to Johnny, Danny was outraged and suggested they "get rid of" his father. Danny admits witnessing the attack on Oscar but denies recommending the murder of Albert.

Says Johnny: "He gave me a good idea I never had before. If I know about killing my father, we do it in New York."

Thus began the sequence of murder attempts against Albert. According to L.A. Detective Ralph Evangelous, there were at least eight, not counting an incident in New York. (Evangelous says Firuza tried to hire a member of the Mafia to kill Albert, but the man refused because he didn't do family hits. Firuza's testimony differed somewhat. She said a sympathetic member of the Mafia was so disgusted with Albert's overall brutality that he offered to kill him, but she declined.) In chronological order, the list is as follows:

1. Danny says Johnny gave him a .45-caliber automatic and said, "Walk up behind Albert and blow his brains out. We'll make it look like robbery." Danny says that one day, while Albert was asleep, he stood over him holding the loaded .45, but didn't shoot.

2. Evangelous says Danny, Oscar and Johnny hired a street person to stand outside the Egyptian Theatre and shoot Albert, but the man couldn't operate the .45. Johnny denies that any of this happened.

3. Somebody spiked Albert's drink with amphetamines, trying to poison him. Johnny says he didn't do it.

4. Johnny was introduced to Richard Gragg, a drifter from Oklahoma, who agreed to kill Albert for $3,000. He waited outside the restaurant, but Albert came out waving a kitchen knife and Gragg backed off.

5. Gragg entered the restaurant and stabbed Albert in the abdomen. Albert was taken to Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center, where he underwent a three-hour operation.

6. The next day Gragg went to the hospital to finish the job, but Albert saw him standing in the doorway of his room and began yelling. Gragg ran off.

7. Gragg's girlfriend, Georganna Vieweg, then 17, was recruited. The plan was for her to pose as a nurse and inject Albert with battery acid. According to Johnny, Danny thought up the idea and described it as finishing off Albert "John Belushi-style." Danny says it was all Johnny's idea. Vieweg injected the acid but didn't hit a vein.

8. Danny, who was arrested on unrelated auto theft charges, told police he could help them solve the perplexing case of the murder attempts on the Hollywood restaurant owner. Danny telephoned Johnny and told him that he had found the right man to kill his father. Johnny offered the man $5,000. He was Sal Flamenco, an undercover cop, who taped the transaction.

Johnny was arrested. Oscar, who still claims he knew nothing about any of the attempts on his father's life, went to the police station to find Johnny. He was arrested too. After eight months in jail, Oscar pleaded guilty on the advice of his attorney and received three years probation. Johnny remained in jail until his trial, 14 months later. He says, "It was like living with my father, only better. I ate good. I slept good. I didn't get hit."

Firuza remained in Israel until Johnny's trial. Though she was never implicated in the attempts on Albert's life, Detective Evangelous is convinced that she helped with the planning. "No doubt about it," he says. He is not without sympathy for Albert. "I think he is a guy who nobody in the world cares for, totally alone, no friends, no family, looking over his shoulder every waking moment, feeling somebody is trying to kill him."

Johnny, Oscar and Firuza have been living in a downtown Los Angeles hotel, their bed, refrigerator and two-burner hot plate all in one room. Firuza is a lively woman who laughs often, sometimes with embarrassment as she relates the intimate details of her family life, sometimes from the joy she feels from being with her sons again. Albert's whereabouts are not known. Johnny says he and Firuza caught sight of him once on a downtown street corner, not far from their hotel, but Albert didn't see them. "I was scared," Johnny admits. Detective Evangelous has lost contact with Albert, but he heard from a social worker that Albert was somewhere out on the streets, looking for his family.

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