LOS ANGELES – A gang member was sentenced to death Thursday for the murders of five people at a homeless encampment near a Long Beach freeway in 2008 and the shooting death of a man in the Lancaster area in 2009.
The Los Angeles Superior Court jury that heard the case against David Cruz Ponce, 37, of Lancaster, recommended Oct. 2 that he be sentenced to death for the crimes.
“Your desire to live a gangsta lifestyle … led you down a terrible path,” Judge Charlaine Olmedo told Ponce. “The circumstances of each murder was horrific.
“You shall suffer the penalty of death … in the manner prescribed by law,” she said.
Ponce, who swiveled in his chair for the entire hearing and showed no reaction to the judge’s words, declined an opportunity to make a statement to the court.
Co-defendant Max Eliseo Rafael — who was convicted of the homeless encampment killings but was not charged with the Lancaster-area killing — was sentenced Jan. 18 to five consecutive life prison terms without the possibility of parole.
In sentencing Rafael, Olmedo called the circumstances of the crime “particularly cruel and vicious” and told the 31-year-old defendant that he “will have a long time” to think about what transpired. She noted that Rafael had denied responsibility for the attack.
Both cases will be automatically appealed to the California Supreme Court for review. The judge ordered Ponce taken to San Quentin State Prison to begin his stay on death row.
Ponce and Rafael were convicted last Sept. 22 of first-degree murder for the Nov. 1, 2008, shooting deaths of Hamid Shraifat, 41, of Signal Hill; Vanessa Malaepule, 34, of Carson; and Frederick Neumeier, 53, Katherine Verdun, 24, and Lorenzo Villicana, 44, of Long Beach.
Along with the five murders, Ponce and Rafael were convicted of kidnapping Shraifat.
Jurors found true the special circumstance allegations of multiple murders, murder during the commission of a kidnapping and murder while an active participant in a criminal street gang, along with gang and gun allegations against the two.
Ponce was also convicted of first-degree murder for the March 23, 2009, kidnapping and shooting death of Tony Bledsoe, 18, in the Lancaster area, along with two counts of unlawfully possessing a firearm.
After Rafael and Ponce were charged in January 2012 with the killings, then-Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell said, “I’d like to make it clear that these victims were not targeted because they were homeless … 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. The other victims were killed to ensure that there were no witnesses to this crime.”
At Rafael’s sentencing, the judge cited jailhouse statements made by Ponce and Rafael, saying those were “very damaging” evidence against the two.
“Really, it’s their own words that provide the sufficiency of the evidence …,” Olmedo said then.
One of Ponce’s attorneys, Robert A. Schwartz, told jurors during the trial that the surreptitious tape recordings of conversations between Ponce and Rafael were made in the “upside-down world” of county jail in which inmates’ status and reputation are enhanced by claiming to have been involved in crimes. Ponce’s lawyer maintained there was “no physical evidence” connecting Ponce to the killings; that his client’s jailhouse statements were “riddled with lies and misstatements showing he wasn’t there”; and that “a lot of information” about the slayings was available in media accounts.
Rafael’s attorney, Marc Lewinstein, had suggested the statements made by his client were “false bravado” rather than actual admissions.
“Max Rafael is not a murderer,” Lewinstein told jurors during the trial.
At the end of Ponce’s sentencing hearing, as the bald, heavily tattooed gang member was being returned to lockup, he turned and smiled at his mother.
“Love you son,” she replied.
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