Two gang members were convicted Friday of first-degree murder for the killings of five people at a homeless encampment near a Long Beach freeway almost nine years ago.
The Los Angeles Superior Court jury deliberated about a day before finding David Cruz Ponce, 36, and Max Eliseo Rafael, 31, guilty of 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.
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.
Superior Court Judge Charlaine F. Olmedo ordered jurors to return to the downtown Los Angeles courthouse Wednesday for the start of the trial’s penalty phase, in which they will be asked to recommend whether Ponce should be sentenced to death or life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Prosecutors opted not to seek the death penalty against Rafael, who faces life in prison without the possibility of parole. He is due back in court for sentencing Nov. 16.
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.
In her final argument, Deputy District Attorney Cynthia Barnes told the jury that the defendants’ own jailhouse statements prove their guilt in the killings at the homeless encampment.
“He’s not falsely bragging … He’s a killer and he’s bragging about it,” Barnes said of one jailhouse recording of Ponce.
Of a recorded conversation between Ponce and Rafael, the prosecutor said, “If you’re Rafael and you’re innocent, would you be whispering about it? … They’re whispering about the details. He’s doing that because he’s the other shooter.”
One of Ponce’s attorneys, Robert A. Schwartz, countered that the surreptitious tape recordings 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 said there is “no physical evidence” connecting Ponce to the killings. He told jurors that his client’s jailhouse statements are “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, asked jurors to determine if the statements were “false bravado” rather than actual admissions.
“Max Rafael is not a murderer,” Lewinstein told jurors.
He urged jurors to set aside their emotions and to be “neutral and dispassionate when making your findings” after seeing what he called “heart- breaking photographs” of the victims and hearing recordings of inmates “bragging like it’s some kind of sport.”
Rafael’s attorney has 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. The prosecutor countered in her rebuttal argument that jurors did not hear any evidence that the man was even in Long Beach that day.
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.”
Ponce and Rafael were charged in January 2012 with the killings and have remained jailed without bail.
–City News Service
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