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Man fatally shot by police in Ybor City

Roobik “Tony” Vartanian kisses his daughter, Isabella Vartanian, who turned 3 on Friday. He was killed early Saturday.

Special to the Times

Roobik “Tony” Vartanian kisses his daughter, Isabella Vartanian, who turned 3 on Friday. He was killed early Saturday.

TAMPA — Roobik "Tony" Vartanian once helped law enforcement officials break up a drug ring that stretched from Jacksonville to Miami.

But early Saturday, Tampa police say they couldn't get the 35-year-old man to comply with the simplest of pleas: "Drop the weapon!"

That decision cost Vartanian his life.

Now his parents, siblings and close friends are left with the task of explaining mortality to Vartanian's daughter on the very weekend she celebrated her third birthday.

"We told her 'Daddy's still at work,' " said Aileen Vartanian, his younger sister.

• • •

Police and witnesses said the chaos started in Club Prana, where Vartanian had worked as a bar manager since 2007.

Vartanian asked two black men from Orlando to stop banging on the walls of the E Seventh Avenue nightclub.

The men threatened Vartanian and said they knew where he lived, club manager Aydin Ravaee said.

Another manager asked the men to leave. Vartanian, Ravaee and the third manager escorted the men out a back door.

At that point, the similarities between police and witness accounts ended.

• • •

The men headed toward Vartanian's townhome, directly behind the club on E Sixth Avenue, Ravaee said. Vartanian's daughter was inside with a babysitter.

Vartanian followed the men to make sure they didn't harm her.

"Like any loving father," Ravaee said.

However, Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy said Vartanian argued with the men, shouted a racial epithet at them, threatened to kill them. Ravaee said the two men, not Vartanian, made the threats.

In the midst of the confusion, two plainclothes officers were patrolling Ybor City in a unmarked van.

Windows down, Officer Rick Harrell and his partner heard the commotion, got out of the van and saw that Vartanian was armed with a gun.

"Freeze," Harrell said. "Police!"

Two times, Harrell demanded Vartanian drop the weapon, police said. After the second time, Vartanian turned and pointed the gun at Harrell, a six-year police officer.

At 1:22 a.m., Harrell fired one shot, striking Vartanian in the stomach. He died at Tampa General Hospital.

• • •

Vartanian did have a gun tucked on his right side, but at no time did he point it at anyone, Ravaee said.

Despite police reports, Ravaee said Harrell never identified himself as an officer. "He just plain out murdered him for no reason," he said. "He just shot him."

Family members find it hard to believe that Vartanian uttered a racial slur.

"He had a girlfriend for seven years that was black," said his father, Vasgen Vartanian.

Harrell was placed on paid administrative leave, which is standard procedure.

• • •

Vartanian did not have a concealed weapons permit and had previously been arrested on six felonies and four misdemeanors, McElroy said.

Until last year, he lived in Jacksonville, where he worked with law enforcement officials as a confidential source in a 2003 drug trafficking sting.

Records from the 11th District Court of Appeals indicate Vartanian bought and sold ecstasy in 2002 and 2003, when he was arrested and agreed to assist agents as an informant. His work led to the arrest of three others.

Relatives and friends acknowledge that Vartanian made mistakes. As the breadwinner of a family of Armenian immigrants who moved to the United States in 1990 without sufficient education or funds, he sometimes felt like the wrong choice was the only choice.

"He was doing that to give his family a better life," said Charles Blanchard, who drove from Jacksonville to Tampa as soon as he got the call at 2 a.m. Saturday that his best friend of five years was dead.

"When his family came here, nobody had anything. When you're put in that situation, sometimes you just have to do things to feed your family."

But Blanchard said Vartanian turned away from drug dealing in 2003. He taught Latin ballroom dancing. He sold cars. He managed nightclubs. He was a popular mixed martial arts fighter who caught the attention of the Florida Times-Union, which profiled him last year.

He was training for his next bout, said Aileen Vartanian, who stood next to a makeshift cross marking the spot where her brother fell. Hours after the shooting, she saw traces of his blood.

"Brought me down to my knees," she said. "It was visual, you know, instead of just hearing about it."

Rodney Thrash can be reached at rthrash@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5303.

Man fatally shot by police in Ybor City 09/06/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 15, 2008 10:18am]
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