Three decades after her father was murdered in a jewel heist that shocked Lebanon, Annie tracked down his killers

Annie Kurkdjian was just 12 when her father Hrant was murdered in a brazen jewel heist in Beirut.

The robbery, committed by three brothers in 1985, saw the bandits shoot dead five workers at a high-end jewellery store before taking off with millions of dollars in cash and diamonds.

It was a heist that stunned an already war-torn city to its core and sent shock waves through the suburb of Bourj Hammoud and its large Armenian community.

Warning: This article contains details readers might find distressing.

In the weeks following the robbery, the brothers were tracked down and confessed to the killings. 

But before they could be tried and sentenced for their crimes, they escaped from a notorious Beirut prison and fled Lebanon, seemingly vanishing into thin air.

Their disappearance prompted Annie to spend the next three decades searching for answers.

In 2013, she finally had a breakthrough, uncovering the crucial puzzle piece that could finally deliver justice in what was described as “the bloodiest crime in the history of Lebanon”.

Now, she’s battling with Austrian authorities to send her father’s alleged killers back to Lebanon. 

The day that changed the Kurkdjian family 

The afternoon of March 28, 1985, probably felt like any other for Hrant Kurkdjian. 

Three brothers, Hratch, Raffi and Panos Nahabedian – aged 20, 25 and 27, respectively – stopped by his workshop. 

A black and white photo of an older man wearing glasses.
Hrant Kurkdjian was a well-known and respected jeweller in Beirut’s northern suburbs.(Supplied: Annie Kurkdjian)

Hrant thought he knew them well. He had entrusted them with work for his jewellery shop, from metal shaping and crimping to polishing precious stones.

He had even given Panos a diamond jewel as a wedding gift. 

Hani Zammar, a 28-year-old employee and father of three, opened the door to the brothers like he would on any other day.

But within seconds the atmosphere had changed drastically.

The brothers grabbed and dragged the young man and his 60-year-old colleague Avedik Boyadjian into Hrant’s office.

Hrant asked them what they wanted, before he was told to open the store’s safe.

Then, they shot him, and made sure no witnesses were left behind.

The brothers used a silenced gun to execute his staff one by one: Hani, Avedik, Maria Mikhaël, 32, and Khatoun Tekeyan, 27.

Back and white profile photos of a man in a suit and two women with dark hair.
Hani Zammar, Maria Mikhaël and Khatoun Tekeyan were shot dead in the jewellery shop.(Supplied)

They took off with more than $3 million worth of diamonds, gold and cash.

Later that day, police found all five victims lying in pools of their own blood.

After the crime, the brothers went on the run. But Panos’s father-in-law tipped off police, who quickly tracked down and arrested him and Raffi. 

The youngest brother, Hratch, was eventually arrested in Cyprus and extradited three weeks after the heist. 

‘We hatched a plan’ 

The three brothers had planned their crime, according to testimony seen by the ABC. 

Raffi Nahabedian said he and his siblings were having financial problems.

“Creditors were chasing us every day,” he said in the testimony to police. 

In another interrogation, Panos Nahabedian stated: “We chose Hrant’s factory as a target. Hratch said that he would purchase a gun with a silencer.”

A young man with dark curly hair and a moustache poses for a mugshot.
Hratch Nahabedian was arrested at the age of 20 in Cyrprus three weeks after the massacre. (Supplied)

“I took some diamonds and 100 grams of gold and gave them to my brother Raffi’s father-in-law.”

Raffi admitted that he melted down the gold to sell it more easily, but investigators failed to find 400 carats of diamonds.

According to Hratch’s confession, Panos shot one of the female victims “four times and then he put his hands on the table and stained it with his fingerprints”.

“Panos’s jacket was covered with blood,” he said.

A daring prison escape

In Lebanon, the wheels of justice can turn slowly, and three years after the crime, the brothers were detained at the infamous Roumieh prison north-east of Beirut, still waiting to be tried.

During those years languishing in prison, the brothers hatched a new plan.

They managed to acquire a hacksaw and remove the bars from their cell, and on the night of March 5, 1988, escaped the prison using bedsheets tied together in a scene straight out of a film.

Several bland prison buildings are picture in the foreground, with the sprawl of Beirut in the background.
The brothers made a daring escape from the overcrowded Roumieh prison on Beirut’s outskirts.(Reuters: Mohamed Azakir)

After their escape, they fled Lebanon, leaving the five victims’ families to pick up the pieces of their crime.

“For us, the victims’ families, it was a long descent into hell,” Annie said.

“Years of frustration, and above all, the taboo as we forbade ourselves to talk about this crime.”

The victims’ families were also sceptical of the official version of the brothers’ daring escape.

Nine years after the massacre, in April 1994, the Nahabedian brothers were convicted and condemned to death in absentia in Lebanon, a sentence later commuted to life imprisonment.

A chance encounter changes everything 

For decades, there were reports the brothers had been seen in the United States, in Canada or even France.

“I endured years of disappointment and I was saturated with falsehoods,” Annie said.

Then finally, on a sunny day in 2013, Annie woke up to a phone call from an old friend, who invited her for lunch with a man known only as Serge.

It was a chance encounter that turned into an interrogation.

A woman in a red dress knees on the floor as she works on an artwork.
Annie Kurkdjian is now a well-known painter based in Beirut.(ABC News: Cherine Yazbeck)

“Serge, who I had just met, was inquisitive and I felt embarrassed by the number of questions related to my father’s brutal murder,” she said.

Serge was on holidays in Vienna in 2005 when he accompanied an Armenian friend who wanted to purchase jewellery for a loved one.

On their way out of the shop, his friend told him that rumours had spread about the brothers who owned the store among the Armenian community.

They were suspected to have killed a prominent jeweller with his employees in Beirut in the 80s.

Annie was initially sceptical, but one piece of information Serge gave her stopped her in her tracks.

“It is only when Serge mentioned that one of the brothers had a daughter with a disability that I felt relieved,” she said.

As a little girl, Annie had kept a box with newspaper clippings on her father’s slaying.

She showed Serge photos of the brothers. He recognised two of them and told her he was certain they ran a jewellery shop in an upscale neighbourhood in Vienna.

Two brothers with moustaches pose for a mugshot.
Raffi and Panos Nahabedian after they were arrested in the weeks after the jewellery shop robbery.(Supplied)

Twenty-eight years after her father’s murder, Annie suddenly started to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Annie now believed that the Nahabedian brothers were alive and thriving in Vienna.

And so began a long and painful journey to bring the assassins back to Lebanon.

A hunt for killers leads to Austria

Annie has travelled numerous times to Vienna, investing money and effort to find the Nahabedian brothers’ whereabouts.

She learned that one of the brothers, Raffi, had died in 2012.

It took Annie’s Austrian lawyer Norbert Haslhofer three months to find his final resting place at a cemetery in Vienna.

“My lawyer spent days walking through alleys of Vienna’s cemeteries until he found Raffi’s tomb,” Annie said.

A photo of tombstone.
Raffi was buried under the name of Haroutioun Dayan Nahabedian in a Vienna cemetery. (Supplied)

“It was like a Sherlock Holmes search.”

The man was buried under the name of Haroutioun Dayan Nahabedian. But the marble headstone displayed his real birthdate, not the one on his Austrian passport.

Mr Haslhofer filed a criminal complaint, leading Austrian authorities to test the fingerprints of one of the brothers.

The print matched one of the men convicted of five murders in Lebanon in 1994.

The same brother, who declined to be identified, told Austrian magazine Profil in 2020 that while he was present at the heist and “something terrible” happened, he vigorously denied taking part in the crime.

The Kurkdjian family’s lawyer, Antoine Fayad, said that after escaping prison, the brothers drove to Syria and flew to Austria, using passports with women’s names on them.

“Back in 1988, there were no biometric passports and [travelling] with women’s passports of their relatives, they entered Vienna unnoticed,” he told the ABC.

“They could have never disappeared without accomplices.

“Their fingerprints, their confessions and the discovery of the jewels stolen from their apartment leaves no doubt about their guilt.”

Mr Fayad said that using pseudonyms, the brothers started their own business in Vienna’s Staatsoper neighbourhood, the opera capital of the world.

“I dedicated a lot of time getting to know them better,” Annie said.

“It might sound obsessive, but it helps me heal and process the premature loss of my father.”

A woman with red hair sits at a table in a red dress working on a laptop computer.
Annie Kurkdjian has spent decades trying to track down the men she believed killed her father. (ABC News: Cherine Yazbeck)

Annie said she has spent countless hours looking at the social media accounts of the men she believes were involved in her father’s death.

“Every day, tirelessly, I check… family pictures and those of their children who were lucky enough to grow up with their father.

“A birthday celebration, Father’s Day, buying gifts and flowers for one another, and all sorts of festivities, while throughout these years I couldn’t tell my father how much I loved him.

“It is unfair, and I want justice.”

The quest for justice continues

After Raffi’s death, the judicial process of the criminal case has stalled, due to the delay bringing the two remaining Nahabedian brothers before an Austrian court of justice.

“Years passed and we are still struggling,” Annie said.

“We lost an honest and upright man.”

A black and white photo of a family. A young girl is cradled by her father.
The Kurkdjian family was left devastated by the death of their patriarch, Hrant (bottom left). (Supplied: Annie Kurkdjian)

Annie’s lawyer Mr Haslhofer said that Panos Nahabedian is about to be stripped of his Austrian nationality.

“The grounds for the complaint are false declarations and their entry into the territory with women’s passports,” he told the ABC.

“Only Panos’s wife could escape the procedure.

“Mr Panos Nahabedian has appealed the decision of two courts, but his chances are dim.”

The brothers have been interrogated by Austrian authorities but there is no timeline for when they could be extradited to Lebanon.

Austria’s Federal Ministry of Justice confirmed to the ABC that a judicial process was ongoing against Panos Nahabedian and an extension into the criminal investigation was granted on April 6 of this year.

In a statement, the ministry said there were no criminal proceedings against Hratch Nahabedian as he was deemed a young adult at the date of the crime and criminal liability was “time-barred within the last 20 years”.

As Annie waits for justice to be served, her hope for a just outcome remains resolute.

“They destroyed five families out of greed,” Annie said.

“Now, it is time for them to pay for their crime.”

A father kisses his young daughter on the cheek in an old family photo.
Annie says she will never give up on justice for her late father. (Supplied: Annie Kurkdjian)