Article Published: Tuesday, May 13, 2003 - 6:21:17 PM PST
Not-guilty plea in arsons
Lawyer: Hate-crimes suspect mentally unbalanced
By Michael Gougis
VAN NUYS -- A former jeweler described as mentally disturbed and on medication pleaded not guilty Tuesday to a dozen felony charges, including arson and terrorism, in a string of attacks on religious buildings in Encino.
Farshid Haji Ezra Tehrani, 40, an Iranian immigrant who has lived in the United States for 16 years, appeared gaunt and disheveled, his hair wildly unkempt, in Van Nuys Superior Court. He is being held with bail set at $750,000.
Tehrani was arrested early Friday after officers -- who had placed him under surveillance -- watched him light a fire in a trash can on a street near Westwood, authorities said.
In 11 of the 12 counts, Tehrani is charged with violating the city's hate-crimes ordinance. If convicted on all counts, Tehrani could face 22 years in prison.
Tehrani lived at home with his parents and had given up his business in the downtown Los Angeles jewelry district, said his attorney, Laizer Gould.
"He is not a terrorist. He has a demonstrated history of mental problems, and he is on medication," Gould said outside court. "He definitely has some psychological problems."
Family members angrily defended Tehrani, saying he is Jewish and would not commit a crime against his or any other faith. Upon seeing the charges filed against him, his sister, Sheena Tehrani, said, "They didn't have any more fires in town that they could blame him for?"
Tehrani is charged with starting an April 25 fire at a house in the 5100 block of Balboa Boulevard that was owned by his family.
The Tehrani family lived elsewhere on the property, but the home that was burned had been rented to a rabbi from the Da'at Torah Educational Center, a nearby storefront temple that also was targeted by the suspect, prosecutors said.
In the following days, prosecutors allege, Tehrani set fire to First Presbyterian Church on Balboa Boulevard, the Bahai Community Center on Genesta Avenue, an Iranian Jewish synagogue on Ventura Boulevard, Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue on Ventura Boulevard, and tried to set a fire at the Da'at Torah Educational Center.
No one was injured in any of the attacks.
Gould said there is no evidence that Tehrani has ties to any terrorist organization.
But prosecutors said he can be charged with terrorism if he showed "reckless disregard of terrorizing" those who were inside or those who used the buildings that were attacked.
Deputy District Attorney Scott Millington, who is in charge of the office's hate-crimes unit, said the city's hate-crimes laws can be invoked even if Tehrani is Jewish and targeted a Jewish synagogue.
"You don't have to hate these locations," he said. "The only requirement is that the religious aspect of it be a substantial factor in the motivation of the crime."
City Councilman Jack Weiss, a former federal prosecutor who represents Encino, said the case should be prosecuted aggressively.
"It is important to send a message that such attacks will not be tolerated," he said.
©Copyright 2003, The Los Angles Daily News (CA, USA)
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