A state appeals court panel Friday upheld the conviction of a gang member who is serving five consecutive life prison terms for the murders of five people at a homeless encampment near a Long Beach freeway nearly a decade ago.

The three-justice panel from California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected the defense’s contention that Max Eliseo Rafael should have been tried separately from co-defendant David Cruz Ponce, who was sentenced to death in February 2018.

Rafael and Ponce were convicted in September 2017 of first-degree murder for the Nov. 1, 2008, shooting deaths of Hamid Shraifat, 41, of Signal Hill, Vanessa Malaepule, 34, of Carson, and Long Beach residents Frederick Neumeier, 53, Katherine Verdun, 24, and Lorenzo Villicana, 44.

Along with the five murders, Ponce and Rafael were convicted of kidnapping Shraifat. Jurors also 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 — whose automatic appeal will be heard by the California Supreme Court — 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.

“The evidence was that both defendants took an active role in the commission of the murders,” Presiding Justice Laurence D. Rubin wrote on behalf of the panel in the ruling on the case against Rafael. “Ponce sought out Villicana because of `bad blood’ between them, and Rafael willingly accompanied him as he hunted Villacana down.

“While Ponce was executing Villicana and his girlfriend, Rafael gunned down all potential witnesses. Although Ponce gave vivid descriptions of his murders, and Rafael was more taciturn, both made statements indicating they had committed multiple brutal murders. This was not a situation where one defendant was marginally involved and the other defendant actively perpetrated the crimes.”

The appellate court panel also noted that the case against Rafael had “made multiple incriminating statements in jail, displaying knowledge of the Long Beach killings and bragging about his own murders.”

At Rafael’s January 2018 sentencing, he said that his only fault was being tied to a “lifestyle that never gave me anything.”

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charlaine Olmedo called the circumstances of the crimes “particularly cruel and vicious” and said then that Rafael “will have a long time” to think about what had transpired.

The judge cited jailhouse statements made by Rafael and Ponce, which he said 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.

During the trial, Rafael’s attorney, Marc Lewinstein, asked the jury to determine if the statements were “false bravado” rather than actual admissions.

“Max Rafael is not a murderer,” Lewinstein told the jurors.

One of Ponce’s attorneys, Robert A. Schwartz, told the panel 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 argued there was “no physical evidence” connecting Ponce to the killings, and said his client’s jailhouse statements were “riddled with lies and misstatements showing he wasn’t there.”

After Rafael and Ponce were charged in January 2012 with the killings, then-Long Beach police Chief Jim McDonnell said he wanted “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.”

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