Police: Arrests made in ’08 mass deaths in Calif.

Jan 19, 2012, 3:02 AM

Associated Press

LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) – Five people were shot to death more than three years ago in a homeless encampment beneath a Los Angeles-area freeway because of unpaid drug debts between one of the victims and an alleged gang member, police said Wednesday.

Long Beach police Chief Jim McDonnell announced the arrests of David Ponce, 31, and Max Rafael, 25 _ alleged members of the Nuthood Watts criminal street gang. Both men are charged with five special-circumstance murders, one count each of kidnapping to commit another crime and conspiracy to commit a crime, along with gun and gang allegations, McDonnell said.

Both men are eligible for the death penalty. They’re being held without bail. Rafael is expected to be arraigned Thursday and Ponce on Friday.

The November 2008 mass killings baffled investigators after the bodies of three men and two women were found on a Sunday morning in a seedy neighborhood of warehouses and apartment buildings. A phone tip led authorities to the bodies, which had been there at least a day.

Police said an ongoing feud between Ponce and Lorenzo Villicana, 44, over unpaid drug debts was the motive for the crimes.

“I’d like to make it clear that these victims were not targeted because they were homeless,” McDonnell said. “This encounter stemmed from a personal vendetta of one of the suspects as the result of an ongoing dispute with one of the victims over narcotics.

A week before the slayings, Villicana was robbed. On the day of the murders, Ponce enlisted Rafael, and the two men recognized 41-year-old Hamid Shraifat as someone who knew Villicana and might be able to find him, said police Lt. Lloyd Cox. The men kidnapped Shraifat, who led them to the encampment where Villicana was, along with Frederick Neumeier, 53, Katherine Verdun, 24, and Vanessa Malaeplue, 34, a mother of six, authorities said.

Police believe Villicana was shot first and the other victims were killed to ensure there would be no witnesses to the crime.

“Within a few weeks of it, we had a theory that this was a personal incident between the suspect and one of the victims and it was a matter of proving that theory whether it was true or not,” Cox said.

Ponce and Rafael were charged Wednesday. News of their arrests comes a day after a suspected serial killer was charged in the stabbing deaths of four homeless men in nearby Orange County over the past month. The timing was pure coincidence, officials said, as police were waiting for prosecutors to file charges.

The Long Beach killings happened in an area known as a homeless encampment and drug hangout in the shadow of two intersecting freeways.

Police said they received very few phone calls in the days following the killings. The anonymous tipster eventually was contacted, but he had no connection to the crime or the people involved, Cox said.

Ponce, who has the words “Nut” and “Hood” tattooed below his eyes, also was charged with kidnapping and murder for a slaying in Lancaster two years ago. In addition, police believe he may be responsible for at least two other murders in Long Beach between 2000 and 2003.

Ponce has been in jail since August 2010 and he has faced prior weapons, narcotic and burglary charges. Rafael has been behind bars since last summer and also faced prior narcotic and weapons charges.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

United States News

President Joe Biden speaks before signing into law S. 2938, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act gu...
Associated Press

Biden signs landmark gun measure, says ‘lives will be saved’

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden on Saturday signed the most sweeping gun violence bill in decades, a bipartisan compromise that seemed unimaginable until a recent series of mass shootings, including the massacre of 19 students and two teachers at a Texas elementary school. “Lives will be saved,” he said at the White House. Citing […]
7 hours ago
FILE - This Sept. 20, 2017, file photo shows a sign at the Disney store on the Champs Elysees Avenu...
Associated Press

Abortion ruling thrusts companies into divisive arena

The Supreme Court’s decision to end the nation’s constitutional protections for abortion has catapulted businesses of all types into the most divisive corner of politics. Some companies that stayed silent last month — when a draft opinion by Justice Samuel Alito was leaked to Politico — spoke up for the first time Friday, including The […]
7 hours ago
Associated Press

A roof over their head: Churches use tiny homes for homeless

Churches across the U.S. are tackling the big question of how to address homelessness in their communities with a small solution: tiny homes. On vacant plots near their parking lots and steepled sanctuaries, congregations are building everything from fixed and fully contained micro homes to petite, moveable cabins, and several other styles of small-footprint dwellings […]
7 hours ago
In this combo photo, protesters gather outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday, June 24, 20...
Associated Press

Two months of waiting, and finally a Supreme Court ruling

Follow the links in this story to recent AP coverage about abortion over the last three months. ___ And so the interminable wait after the leak of the decision overturning Roe v. Wade has come to an end — nearly two months in which abortion and all of its complexities have been have been hashed […]
7 hours ago
With tear gas in the air, a large number of police surround the Arizona Capitol after protesters re...
Associated Press

Police at Arizona Capitol fire tear gas, disperse protesters

PHOENIX (AP) — Police fired tear gas to disperse anti-abortion demonstrators from outside the Arizona Capitol Friday night, forcing lawmakers to huddle briefly in a basement inside the building as they rushed to complete their 2022 session. Thousands of protesters had gathered earlier on the Capitol grounds in Phoenix, divided into groups both supporting and […]
7 hours ago
Jay Walker, third from left, co-founder of Gays Against Guns, speaks into a megaphone during a rall...
Associated Press

To some defenders, gun ruling could right a racial wrong

NEW YORK (AP) — When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down New York’s tight restrictions on who can carry a handgun, condemnation erupted from liberal leaders and activists. But some public defenders, often allies of progressive activists, praised the court’s ruling, saying gun-permitting rules like New York’s have long been a license for racial discrimination. […]
7 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

Vaccines are safe if you are pregnant or breastfeeding

Are you pregnant? Do you have a friend or loved one who’s expecting?
Christina O’Haver

BE FAST to spot a stroke

Every 40 seconds—that’s how often someone has a stroke in the United States. It’s the fifth leading cause of death among Americans, with someone dying of a stroke every 3.5 minutes.
Canvas Annuity

The secret to guaranteed retirement income

Annuities aren’t really a secret, but they are so misunderstood that they might as well be. Once you understand what an annuity is and how it can benefit you, you could decide this “secret” is the perfect supplement to your retirement plan.
Police: Arrests made in ’08 mass deaths in Calif.