A prosecutor told jurors Wednesday that two reputed gang members bragged about their involvement in the 2008 killings of five people at a homeless encampment near a freeway in Long Beach, while attorneys for the two men urged the panel to acquit their clients of the slayings.
In her opening statement, Deputy District Attorney Cynthia Barnes told the Los Angeles Superior Court jury that David Cruz Ponce and Max Eliseo Rafael spoke to another inmate about the Nov. 1, 2008, shooting deaths at an encampment near the Santa Fe Avenue off-ramp of the San Diego (405) Freeway.
“You can hear them brag about these killings with their own words,” the prosecutor told the seven-woman, five-man jury hearing the case.
Ponce, 36, and Rafael, 31, are charged with five counts of murder for the killings of Hamid Shraifat, 41, of Signal Hill; Vanessa Malaepule, 34, of Carson; and Frederick Neumeier, 53, Katherine Verdun, 24, and Lorenzo Villicana, 44, all of Long Beach.
The murder charges include the special circumstance allegations of multiple murders, murder during the commission of a kidnapping, murder of witnesses to a crime and murder while an active participant in a criminal street gang, along with gang allegations. The two men are also charged with kidnapping Shraifat.
Ponce — who is facing a possible death sentence if convicted — is also charged with the March 23, 2009, kidnapping and murder of Tony Bledsoe in the Lancaster area, along with possession of a firearm by a felon.
Prosecutors opted not to seek the death penalty against Rafael, who could face a maximum of life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted of the killings.
After the two were charged, 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.”
Jurors heard a portion of one of Ponce’s recorded conversations with a jailhouse informant, in which Ponce allegedly said, “I emptied the clip out. They all slumped on each other … I just hit ’em again.”
One of Ponce’s attorneys, Robert A. Schwartz, said the case is “going to rest primarily on things Mr. Ponce said,” noting that the statements were made to an inmate who was “working with law enforcement” and was “on a mission” in which he provided inmates, including Ponce, with a jail-made alcoholic brew.
The defense lawyer said that he expected the evidence to show that many details about the killings had already been disclosed in media reports, that Ponce was either “intoxicated” or “downright drunk” at the time he was making the statements and that his client told the informant “a lot of things that are outright lies.”
Schwartz questioned whether jurors can “take him (Ponce) at his word.”
“I expect that you will conclude that Mr. Ponce is not guilty of the charges,” Ponce’s lawyer said.
Rafael’s attorney, Marc Lewinstein, suggested that it was not his client but another man — to whom Villicana allegedly owed money — who was one of the two people who went to the encampment and carried out the attacks.
He urged jurors to “keep an open mind,” saying he expects them to know by the end of the trial that they “should find Max Rafael not guilty.”
The prosecutor told jurors that the evidence would show that Ponce and Rafael showed up at a homeless encampment and took Shraifat as they looked for Villicana.
Ponce shot Verdun and Malaepule, then turned the gun on Villicana and shot him in the head, Barnes told the jury.
Rafael shot Shraifat and then Neumeier “for no reason other than he was there” as a witness, the prosecutor said.
About four months later, Ponce was involved in a sixth shooting death — the execution-style killing of Bledsoe, who had helped him to sell drugs, Barnes told jurors.
Bledsoe was driven out to the desert, forced to get on his knees and shot four times in the head, the deputy district attorney said.
One of Bledsoe’s hands was found by a dog who was with a woman riding her horse nearly six months later and the man’s remains were subsequently discovered by a middle-school student.
An ex-girlfriend of Ponce’s is expected to testify about his “admission” to both of the crimes, Barnes said.
Ponce and Rafael were charged in January 2012 with the killings and have remained jailed without bail.
–City News Service