Following Terror's Forgotten Trail
An explosives case raises ghosts of a bloody past
The Bedford Self-Serve Mini Storage Facility sits unobtrusively in a Cleveland suburb, next to a day-care center, an elementary school, and a gas station. It was four years ago that its manager, frustrated at six months of unpaid bills, sheared off the lock of unit J-2. He then called the police.
Pete Elliott, an agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Fire-arms, hustled over to Bedford and was stunned by what he saw: a 16-year-old cache of high explosives--100 pounds of dynamite, blasting caps, and more--plus 13 firearms, a shopping bag full of ammo, and a dusty trench coat. The dynamite was leaking and extremely dangerous.
That day, Elliott launched what became a four-year investigation leading to a host of forgotten crimes, to a web of extremism that began a quarter century ago and ended in a federal courtroom last week. It would take America's proud Armenian community back to people and events many would prefer to forget--to bombings and coldblooded murders--and to still-heated charges of genocide that date back 85 years.
A man called Moose. Elliott's first task was finding who paid for the locker all those years. He grabbed the paperwork and found three renters going back to 1980, all paying in cash, all named Louise: Louise Sardella, Louise Fischel, Louise Seyranian. Everything about the records appeared false. One address was for an Open Pantry convenience store; a phone number led to a local sports club.
A storage employee vaguely recalled a woman who paid the rent, and she agreed to help an ATF artist on a composite drawing. Elliott, meanwhile, ordered traces for the 13 aging weapons. Only one came back positive: a 20-gauge shotgun tied to a woman in West Virginia. She was a former Cleveland resident, it turned out, whose son had sold the gun to her boss at an Open Pantry store, the same one as on the application. The boss, she recalled, was an Armenian fellow named Moose.
Elliott pulled the papers on the convenience store and found it was owned by Topalian Enterprises. He then acted on an old investigator's hunch--"When people lie, they lie close to home"--and ran searches on the names he'd found: Sardella, Topalian, Fischel, Seyranian. Sure enough, he found a Michelle Seyranian and a Mourad Topalian residing at the same address in a nearby town. But the woman's driver's license photo and the composite drawing looked nothing alike, and the couple now lived in Florida.
Elliott, though, found another Topalian was still in town, a Lucy Topalian. And Lucy's photo was a dead ringer for the composite. Moreover, her age fit, and her handwriting matched that on the rental agreement. Confronted by Elliott, a frightened Lucy admitted that years ago she rented the locker but said she knew nothing about the contents. She was told to do it by her former husband--Mourad Topalian, whose nickname was Moose.
Mourad Topalian was no ordinary suspect. At the time, he was chairman of the Armenian National Committee of America, one of the nation's two leading Armenian associations. Tall and charismatic, he was well known in the halls of Congress and had met with President Clinton a half-dozen times. Although smaller than the Irish or Jewish American communities, the nation's 1 million ethnic Armenians back one of the best-organized ethnic lobbies in politics. Topalian and his allies have helped make tiny, landlocked Armenia one of the top per capita recipients of U.S. aid. Most of all, they have focused national attention on the Armenian genocide.