Does Someone Have It In For Carole Little Inc.?

The trip usually took 40 minutes. But at 6:05 p.m. on May 4, Rolando P. Ramirez' drive home from the office ended after just eight blocks. At a traffic light at the corner of Jefferson Boulevard and Main Street in South Central Los Angeles, his late-model Mercedes was riddled with bullets by a still unknown assailant. Ramirez, the 44-year-old controller of L.A.-based women's apparel manufacturer Carole Little, slumped dead over the steering wheel.

For a city where violence is commonplace, it would be easy to write off Rolando Ramirez as another grim statistic. But to the city police, he became the latest piece of a puzzling case in which a stunning series of killings and violent acts have rocked Carole Little, the $372 million clothing maker run by its namesake and her husband, Leonard Rabinowitz.

It's a tale that so far has baffled police, who are pursuing leads taking them from the murky world of garment manufacturing to organized crime, extortion, and fraud. The Federal Bureau of Investigation's organized-crime unit also is involved, though it won't comment on the investigation.

The death of Ramirez, a 16-year Carole Little executive, followed the shooting death last December of company Vice-President Kenneth Martin, who was gunned down while sitting in his truck at a red light. A year earlier, Carole Little executive Karin Wong Holzinger survived a highway shooting, two explosions at her home, and suffered through a series of harassing phone calls. Hakop Antonyan, whose company sewed garments under contract to Carole Little, was gunned down outside his Glendale (Calif.) factory the same night as the second explosion at Holzinger's home.

The execution-style killings of Martin and Ramirez have prompted investigators to focus on organized crime. Glendale pmlice officials also are investigating whether Antonyan's death was "related to organized crime efforts to control a portion of the garment industry."

Another possibility: that rivalries within the $18 billion-a-year apparel industry have turned from nasty to violent. The business is full of factions, with large numbers of sewing shops competing aggressively for business. And Carole Little acknowledges that in 1991 and 1992, it began reducing its roster of contractors from 90 to 20 or so.

Investigators still are piecing together clues. Long Beach (Calif.) police say Holzinger claims she received extortion threats telling her not to switch contractors. Holzinger left Carole Little shortly after the final explosion and has recently filed a wrongful-dismissal suit.

At present, the only suspect in custody is Karapet Demirdzhyan, an unemployed Armenian living in Hollywood, who has been charged with stalking Antonyan and killing him outside his Glendale factory. Demirdzhyan is pleading not guilty to the charge, and police have uncovered no motive that would cause him to be involved. In the other murder cases, police have made no arrests. "I've got a city full of suspects," says Detective Fred Miller, who is heading the investigation into the Ramirez slaying.

FRONT-PAGE NEWS. Investigators have not ruled out the possibility that the violence may be related to internal issues at the company, though police denied recent reports of an investigation into possible embezzlement there. The company refused BUSINESS WEEK's requests to interview its executives, though Rabinowitz gave limited responses to several questions. "Both of [the slain Carole Little executives] were very well liked," he says. "Our employees are devastated but feel good about the LAPD Robbery & Homicide response" to the crimes. The company added in a statement that it sees no evidence linking the two murders. Little and city officials have offered a $125,000 reward for leads.

Police will not discuss safety measures being taken to protect current employees, but immeasurable damage has already been done to the company's image. The affair has made the front page of the Los Angeles Times, for one thing. "What someone is trying to do is put Carole Little out of business," says Stanley Weintraub, the company's former manufacturing vice-president. Weintraub, who now oversees dress manufacturing at another Los Angeles company, says he was let go by Carole Little in 1992 and replaced by Holzinger. "I'm relieved I'm not there." No doubt.

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