Max Eliseo Rafael, a gang member, was sentenced Thursday to five consecutive life terms for the drug-related murders of five people at a Long Beach homeless encampment. Photo from the Long Beach Police Department.
Max Eliseo Rafael, a gang member, was sentenced Thursday to five consecutive life in prison terms for the drug-related murders of five people at a Long Beach homeless encampment. Photo from the Long Beach Police Department.

A gang member convicted of the murders of five people at a homeless encampment near a Long Beach freeway nearly a decade ago was sentenced Thursday to five consecutive life prison terms without the possibility of parole.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charlaine Olmedo called the circumstances of the crime “particularly cruel and vicious” and told Max Eliseo Rafael that he “will have a long time” to think about what transpired.

The judge cited jailhouse statements made by Rafael and co-defendant David Cruz Ponce, saying those were “very damaging” evidence against the two.

“Really, it’s their own words that provide the sufficiency of the evidence …,” Olmedo said, noting that there was also independent evidence that linked Rafael to the shootings.

Rafael, 31, and Ponce, 37, 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, and 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. Jurors recommended the death penalty last Oct. 2 for Ponce, who is set to be formally sentenced Feb. 15.

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.”

Villicana’s brother, Pablo, told the defendants, “You two gentlemen are evil.”

He said he “didn’t have much hope in the system” when his brother was killed, but his perspective has changed since then.

A woman who had adopted Verdun’s son in an open adoption told the judge that Verdun was so much more than a homeless person.

“She wanted him to have the kind of life she couldn’t give him … She put his needs before her own,” the woman said of Verdun. “That’s the difference between Kat and her murderers.”

Rafael initially declined to speak during the hearing, then told the judge that his only fault was being tied to a “lifestyle that never gave me anything.”

The judge — who noted that Rafael had denied responsibility for the crime — told him that he is a young man who has “decades ahead” to “do a lot of introspection.”

During the trial, 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.

One of Ponce’s attorneys, Robert A. Schwartz, told jurors 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 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.

–City News Service

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