'72 Murder Solved?
January 3, 2001
Fresno police confirmed Tuesday that they have identified two suspects in the 1972 murder of tavern owner Ara Arax, whose killing spawned a book decades later by his journalist son that probed drug dealing and police corruption in the city.
Sources say one of the shooters is dead and the other is in a Midwest prison. Sources also say police broke the case on an informant's tip and that the shooters' identities were confirmed with fingerprints. Sgt. Daryl Green and detective Robert Schiotis of the police homicide unit declined comment on those details, but said they will seek an arrest warrant from the Fresno County District Attorney's Office.
The break in one of Fresno's most notorious murder cases came on its 29th anniversary. On Jan. 2, 1972, two men in their early 20s, one with a full mustache, the other with long sideburns, confronted and shot Arax as he worked in his office at Ara's Apartments, a popular tavern near the Clinton Avenue overpass and Freeway 99.
The murder occurred about 7 p.m. on a Sunday, and Arax normally didn't work Sundays. Earlier that day, he donned a red-and-gold team hat and sat on a "lucky" part of the sofa to watch his beloved San Francisco 49ers on television. The 49ers lost.
Gunfire wounded the 40-year-old Arax in the chest, stomach, legs, wrist and head. He died that night in a hospital emergency room.
Responding to questions from The Bee, Green and Schiotis did address a key question that has long haunted the Arax case: Was it a botched robbery gone deadly wrong or was it an orchestrated "hit" after Arax learned about drug smuggling and police corruption while running his tavern?
"Right now, it appears to just be a robbery," Schiotis said.
The possibility of something more fills the pages of "In My Father's Name," the book written by Mark Arax, the victim's oldest son and today a Los Angeles Times journalist based in Fresno. Published in 1996 by Simon & Schuster, the book explores the dangerous underworld of Fresno in the years before Arax's murder.
Mark Arax wrote of a drug ring involving prominent Fresnans that was protected by high-ranking officers of the Fresno Police Department. He also probed how far, and to what extent, his father had become involved with the drug underworld.
"My whole reason for coming back to Fresno was to find my father, absent the ugly rumors," Arax said Tuesday. "That's why I wrote the book: to clear my father's name. In a funny way, what I began, the police have finished. They scrubbed my dad every which way and found him nothing but clean.
"I can go to his grave and tell him, 'Rest easy. Your reputation as someone who cared about his community and its children is intact. The journey is over.'"
Arax was 15 when his father was killed. He said closure is "an overrated concept" but added: "After 29 years of wondering who killed my father, there is something liberating in knowing the identities of the two gunmen, and I'm really grateful the Fresno Police Department pursued a tip and decided to run the fingerprints that have given us the match."
Arax said he and his family don't want to comment on whether the shooters had any other motive than robbery: "There was a rush to judge Ara Arax in 1972, and we need to be cautious not to judge the full reasons behind his murder now."
Arax said the bigger picture painted by his book remains unchanged.
"My father was about to expose some major drug operations," Arax said, "and some of those principals tied right back to the highest levels of the Police Department."
But if robbery turns out to be the only motive?
"I was open to that possibility, as improbable as it was, when I wrote the book," Arax said.
But his book also poses some disturbing questions: If robbery was their motive, why didn't the assailants take money from the tavern's till? And what about the $135 found in Ara Arax's pocket?
Ara Arax and his wife, Flora, had two other children: Michelle and Don. Flora Arax died in 1984.
Michelle Arax Asadoorian of Fresno said Tuesday that the break in the case has left her family numb.
"We're optimistic," she said. "But it's a strange feeling 29 years later." Asadoorian, 41, was 12 when her father was killed. She said she hopes that Fresno police detectives will continue investigating why the shooters singled out her father's tavern.
"We are confident they aren't going to say it's over; it's done," Asadoorian said.
Don Arax, 36, is the head football coach at Bullard High School. He said his family lived for nearly three decades hoping, but never quite believing, a break would happen. Don Arax was 7 when his dad died. He had many a playground fight at Malloch Elementary School when classmates said something unkind about his dead father.
"I felt I was defending the family's honor," Don Arax said.
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