4 Suspects Held in Slayings of 3 Shoppers
Four people were arrested Friday in connection with the abduction and slaying of three San Gabriel Valley shoppers, and authorities said the well-armed gang apparently intended to continue its rampage of lethal robberies.
The suspects--two men recently released from jail and two women--were captured in a predawn raid on their West Covina apartment, not far from the Puente Hills shopping mall where at least one of the victims was kidnaped. The bodies of two women were left along freeways, while the third victim, a man, was dumped in a trash bin on a school campus.
All three were shot while on shopping trips, and the crimes triggered fear among the patrons of many Southern California malls--a fear that Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials suggested was not without foundation.
“We were absolutely convinced there were going to be further murders,” Undersheriff Robert Edmonds told a crowded news conference at the Hall of Justice building in downtown Los Angeles.
Edmonds said the “tremendous break” in the case came from videotapes taken by hidden bank cameras at automated teller machines, which showed the suspects using two victims’ stolen ATM cards. One of the women victims, still alive at the time, could be seen sitting in a car while her abductors obtained cash, Edmonds said.
A small arsenal of weapons--including M-16 and AK-47 assault rifles--was seized when a sheriff’s SWAT team stormed the West Covina apartment at 3 a.m. Friday, Edmonds said.
Also recovered were a Ruger .357 magnum and a Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver, which authorities believe was used in the murders.
“They had no regard for human life whatsoever,” West Covina Police Cmdr. John Distelrath said.
Murder charges are expected to be brought against the four next week, authorities said. Detectives are investigating whether any of the four were involved in other murders, kidnapings and robberies in the San Gabriel Valley, and perhaps other places, during the last several weeks, Edmonds said.
One of the men in custody, Vincent Hubbard, 26, had been paroled from state prison one month before the crimes began, records show. He served time on narcotics charges and charges of assault on a correctional officer. The other man arrested, John Lewis, 21, was released two months ago from the California Youth Authority after serving four years for assault with a deadly weapon and burglary.
Hubbard was described by state parole officials as a veteran gang member who had been in and out of jail over the past decade.
Arrested with them were Eileen Huber, 20, and Lewis’ sister, Robin Machuca, 26, who has been arrested several times on drug and theft charges, sheriff’s officials said.
Edmonds said hidden cameras at two banks captured the suspects on film and that detectives showed the photographs to West Covina police, who immediately recognized the suspects--and knew where they lived. In fact, police had questioned them within the last few days in connection with an unrelated crime, Distelrath said.
The first victim was Willie Newton Sams, 40, of West Covina. He was abducted Aug. 18 as he walked from his home to a nearby store, and was shot to death by robbers who stole his money, credit and teller machine cards. His body was found in a dumpster at a West Covina school.
Last Saturday, Elizabeth Nisbet, 49, was abducted from the Puente Hills Mall as she sat in her 1990 Ford Bronco awaiting her husband. Her body, with a gunshot in the head, was found later that day in the Bronco alongside the San Gabriel River Freeway in Irwindale.
On Tuesday, Shirley Denogean, 56, disappeared after telling co-workers in City of Industry that she was going shopping. Later that day, passersby found her body alongside the Pomona Freeway in South El Monte. She had been shot numerous times. Her 1980 Mercedes-Benz was found shortly afterward.
Both women had been bound, either by plastic cord or duct tape, investigators said.
Before Thursday, investigators had only been able to identify the car the assailants had been using. They obtained that information after the four attempted to buy $700 worth of clothing at a Miller’s Outpost store in El Monte on Aug. 19, the day after Sams was killed. They were using his stolen American Express card.
The card had already been canceled, and store employees wrote down the license plate number of the car that the suspects were driving.
The car, a 1978 Mercury, was registered to an address in Baldwin Park. Police unsuccessfully staked out the address.
After zeroing in on the West Covina address after discovery of the bank photographs, about three dozen officers, including SWAT team sharpshooters and surveillance specialists, surrounded the apartment in the 2500 block of Temple Avenue on Thursday night and waited for a search warrant.
At about 1:30 a.m. Friday, investigators said, Huber left the apartment building in the Mercury. Deputies arrested her a short distance away at a Jack-in-the-Box fast-food restaurant.
About 1 1/2 hours later, search warrant in hand, deputies and police stormed the apartment. Hubbard and Lewis dived for weapons, according to authorities.
The officers were able to “interrupt” one of the men before he reached a gun. The other was stopped by a flash grenade thrown between him and a rifle. No shots were fired and no one was injured in the arrest, authorities said.
All four suspects were booked on suspicion of murder and are being held in the West Covina Jail. They are expected to be arraigned Tuesday.
At the 460-unit West Covina apartment complex, neighbors Friday described Apartment E, where all four suspects lived at times, as a common setting for late-night drug and alcohol parties.
“I’m not surprised that they were arrested because of all the trouble and altercations around the place,” said Jackie Barnette, whose apartment shares a courtyard with that of Lewis and Machuca.
“They never went to bed. I’m up at 4:30 to go to work and sometimes they’d still be up there having fun and partying.”
As recently as last Monday, Barnette said, she called the police because “I heard a child screaming for three hours, from 11:30 Sunday night to 1:30 Monday morning. She was crying and screaming, ‘Please don’t leave me mom!’ ”
It was not clear if Machuca, known as “Pee Wee” by neighbors, was the mother of the child heard crying.
Barnette said she warned her 6-year-old daughter to stay away because she had heard gunshots. “They’re always fighting in that house. They’d be friends and two hours later there would be a brawl and the police would come.”
As the arrests were being announced, the victims were being remembered by their families and friends.
Sams’ wife, Loretta, wept at her West Covina home as she spoke of the man she had married shortly after graduation from Roosevelt High School 21 years ago. He worked for the Los Angeles Unified School District in the maintenance department.
“We were more like friends . . . friends and lovers,” she said. “He was my everything, and they just destroyed it. It was heartless, heartless.”
One of the Sams’ two daughters had married the day before he was killed. About 200 people attended his funeral Monday, Loretta Sams said.
Nisbet, who had worked for 13 years as a secretary for the emergency unit at Martin Luther Hospital in Anaheim, was described by her husband, Neil, as “solid as the rock of Gibraltar.”
“The taking of this woman’s life has left me totally empty. . . . I still expect her to walk through the door at any second,” Neil Nisbet, 49, said in his Diamond Bar home.
He said he planned to take his wife’s ashes to their native Scotland to scatter them in a cemetery in Edinburgh where her parents are buried.
Their son, Neil Nisbet Jr., 25, said of his mother: “When my friends were hurt, they would come here to get patched up. She was mom to everybody. She was everybody’s mom.”
This November, the couple would have been married for 30 years. Their daughter’s wedding was also planned that same month, and Elizabet Nisbet had been busy preparing for the wedding.
“She was such a special person that was evidenced by the response to what happened,” Neil Nisbet Sr. said. “She touched everybody’s life.”
Earlier, about 100 co-workers eulogized Nisbet at a memorial service at the hospital where she worked.
“She was always ready to console people, to help people,” Cynthia Winner, the hospital’s emergency services manager, said. “You know I can see someone coming up to her in a parking lot and saying they need help and asking her to go with them. She would probably go, she wouldn’t be afraid. She wasn’t afraid of people.”
“I wonder about what happened, how afraid she must have been,” said secretary Linda Tremain, her eyes misty.
Shirley Denogean, who lived in Claremont, was also being remembered by friends. Her husband, Ray, was described as too upset to talk with reporters.
“I guess the words that most people used (about her) basically were that she helped anyone out she could,” said Brad Myers, who worked with her at Lynx Golf Inc. in the City of Industry. “She was totally accommodating. She accommodated her friends, associates and family members.”
A next-door neighbor, Ingrid Fowler, described the Denogeans as a low-key family and avid churchgoers. She said Shirley Denogean was always working in her garden.
Times staff writers Geoff Boucher, Jesse Katz and Edmund Newton contributed to this article.