LOS ANGELES – A 31-year-old Lancaster man is one of two suspects that were charged Wednesday with the 2008 shooting deaths of three men and two women slain in a Long Beach homeless encampment.
David Cruz Ponce of Lancaster was charged with five special circumstance murders, according to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office.
Ponce, a documented gang member, is accused of killing Jose Lorenzo Villicana, 44; Hammid Shraifat, 41; Katherine Verdun, 24; Vanessa Malaepule, 34; and Frederick Neumeier, 53.
On Sunday Nov. 2, 2008, Long Beach police officers were dispatched to the area of Santa Fe Avenue and Wardlow Road regarding a 9-1-1 call stating that someone had been killed.
Officers discovered the bodies of the five victims, who had been shot multiple times, in a homeless encampment near the Santa Fe Avenue off-ramp of the 405 Freeway, according to the Long Beach Police Department.
In investigating the case, detectives recreated each of the victim’s backgrounds to identify known associates through interviews. Detectives established that there was an ongoing dispute between one of the victims, Villicana, and Ponce over a drug debt. Detectives also identified an unreported incident where Villicana had been assaulted and robbed by Ponce a week prior to the murders, according to the Long Beach Police Department.
Detectives believe Ponce plotted the murder of Villicana and recruited fellow gang member, Max Eliseo Rafael, 25, to assist him.
On the day of the murders, police say Ponce and Rafael forced Shraifat at gunpoint to take them to the homeless encampment where Villicana lived. Once at the encampment, the men allegedly killed Villicana and murdered the four other victims to ensure there were no witnesses to the crime, according to the Long Beach Police Department.
Both men are charged with kidnapping, murder of witnesses to a crime intentionally killed because of that fact, and murder while active participants in a criminal street gang.
Ponce has also been charged with the kidnapping and murder of Tony Bledsoe of Lancaster on March 23, 2009. Bledsoe’s murder was investigated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
Detectives have also identified at least two more murders in downtown Long Beach for which Ponce may be responsible, according to the Long Beach Police Department.
Additionally, Ponce and Rafael have been linked to a 2010 murder plot involving a rival gang member, which was foiled by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies who apprehended Ponce and other Nuthood Watts gang members before the plan could be executed.
Both men are expected to be arraigned Thursday at the Foltz Criminal Justice Center.