A Montgomery County grand jury indicted Bethesda jeweler Vahag Babayan yesterday on charges of murder and reckless endangerment in the June 16 slayings of two men after a holdup of his store.
The midday shooting in downtown Bethesda sent shoppers and bystanders running in panic as Babayan fired shots and chased one suspect through a parking lot to a getaway car parked on Woodmont Avenue. According to police and witnesses, Babayan ran to the driver's side of the Honda Accord and fired five to seven shots at the occupants.
The episode ignited an intense public debate about whether the shootings were justified or an act of vigilantism. Many Bethesda merchants supported Babayan, saying he had acted in self-defense. Others said the jeweler had gone too far by endangering the lives of bystanders and using excessive force to protect private property.
Montgomery State's Attorney Andrew L. Sonner took a low-profile approach to the incident, and declined to advise the grand jury on whether to indict Babayan. The grand jury took up the case July 12 and met for 10 hours in three sessions before handing up three charges against Babayan, 27, including second-degree murder in the death of Steven J. Powell, 37, an amputee who was sitting in the getaway car with crutches when he was killed.
The grand jury was told that one of the victims pleaded for his life moments before he was killed, sources said.
In addition, Babayan was indicted on manslaughter in the slaying of Donald Shelton, 33, identified by police as the man who robbed the jeweler at gunpoint. The grand jury also handed up an indictment for reckless endangerment against Babayan for firing a gun in a public place.
Babayan, the owner of Prestige Jewelry Store on Wisconsin Avenue, declined to testify before the grand jury. He was unavailable for comment last night. Prosecutors said yesterday that his attorney, Edward Genn, had been notified of the indictments and arrangements were being made for Babayan to turn himself in.
Babayan's father, Vigen Babayan, an Armenian broadcaster with the Voice of America, said in a phone interview last month that his oldest son "felt very bad" about the shootings.
Prosecutors said they expect Babayan to be arraigned on the charges early next week. Sonner declined to say whether his office would seek to have Babayan incarcerated pending his trial and declined to comment further.
"I will say absolutely nothing to jeopardize his right to a fair trial," Sonner said.
If convicted, Babayan could face a maximum prison sentence of 40 years on the combined murder and manslaughter charges and five years in jail on the reckless endangerment charge, Sonner said.
A spokesman for the Maryland State Rifle and Pistol Association said yesterday his organization plans to start a legal defense fund for Babayan.
Sonner said prosecutors did not make a recommendation on charges to the grand jury because of the unusual circumstances and said his office "needed the advice" of the jurors.
Second-degree murder -- the unlawful killing of another but without premeditation -- is the most serious charge facing Babayan. Voluntary manslaughter is an unlawful killing in the heat of passion, such as rage or fright.
The events began about 1 p.m. on a Saturday when Shelton robbed Babayan of about $24,000 worth of jewelry, police said. Babayan ran after Shelton with a .38-caliber semiautomatic handgun, firing once at him during the chase.
Police said Shelton tried to pull a gun from his waistband, but did not fire the weapon. Shelton and Powell were in the car when Babayan shot them, police said. They crashed into five other cars as they tried to drive away.
Babayan and his brother, David, opened the store in September. Since the shooting, the store has been closed, and a nearby merchant said the property has been vacated.