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Police Probing Slayings of Shoppers Kill Man in Raid : Crime: West Covina officers serving search warrant thought he was going for a gun. He was not a suspect.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A West Covina SWAT team, looking for evidence in the abduction and slaying of three San Gabriel Valley shoppers, shot and killed a man Monday while serving a search warrant at his apartment.

Police said Darryl Stephens, 27, who lived in the same West Covina complex as four well-armed suspects arrested last week, had been linked to the crimes but was not considered a suspect. He was shot, they said, because officers mistakenly believed he was reaching for a gun.

Meanwhile, a fifth suspect was arrested in the string of attacks. Four people were taken into custody Friday after hidden cameras allegedly showed them using their victims’ stolen bank cards.

Derrick Devon Colbert, 27, was arrested by sheriff’s deputies at his Baldwin Park apartment during one of a series of predawn raids Monday. He was booked on suspicion of murder and was being held without bail at West Covina jail.

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The string of attacks triggered fears among many shopping mall patrons as news spread that the three victims had been abducted, robbed and executed before their bodies were dumped alongside freeways and in a trash bin.

Over the weekend, detectives indicated that the suspects also had been tentatively linked to at least one other murder and possibly a spate of eight armed robberies over the last two months in La Puente, Covina and West Covina.

Although sheriff’s deputies conceded that Stephens was not a suspect in the slayings, they said they had monitored a conversation between him and an informant in the case, during which Stephens allegedly said he would kill anyone who attempted to search his apartment.

“Stephens indicated at that time that no one would enter his apartment without a warrant and if they did he would shoot them,” said Deputy Gabe Ramirez, a Sheriff’s Department spokesman.

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A 14-member West Covina special weapon and tactics team stormed his second-story apartment at 2 a.m., after officers said they identified themselves but received no answer. They contended that Stephens was kneeling on the floor and reaching under a mattress when they burst through his bedroom door, officials said.

“The officers, fearing he may have been arming himself, repeatedly told Stephens to freeze, at which time Stephens rapidly removed his hands from under the bed,” Ramirez said. “Thinking that Stephens had armed himself, two officers fired multiple rounds from their weapons, striking him in the upper torso.”

Stephens, who was clad only in his underwear, was pronounced dead at the scene. No weapon was found under the bed, Ramirez said.

A copy of a search warrant left at the apartment showed that officers were looking for a .12-gauge pistol-grip shotgun, a black satin jacket and a compact disc player with a pre-amplifier and homemade speaker boxes.

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Next to the warrant was a copy of a West Covina Police Department inventory sheet, indicating that officers had seized two .25-caliber handguns, seven rounds of ammunition and several VHS tapes.

At the 460-unit Woodside Apartments in the southern end of West Covina, however, neighbors, friends and family contradicted the official version of events.

Witnesses contended that officers never identified themselves and that they opened fire almost immediately after ramming the door down and setting off flash grenades. Stephens, they said, had come home about midnight, taken a shower and was either resting or asleep in bed when he was shot.

“They didn’t give him a chance to defend himself,” said one neighbor who declined to give his name. “They didn’t say anything--just busted down the door, then the shots, pow, pow, pow.”

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A longtime friend said Stephens, who worked as a foreman for a medical supply manufacturer in City of Industry, had talked to him Friday and expressed concern that sheriff’s investigators were mistakenly linking him to the four suspects, who lived in a cluster of apartments about 200 yards away.

“He had nothing to fear, but he was concerned that they were painting a picture of guilty by association,” said Laurence James, who owns a West Covina mortgage company. “This is an unjustified homicide by the police.”

Stephens’ father and stepmother led reporters through the apartment where he had lived with two roommates for most of the last year. The wooden molding around the door jamb had been broken out, and clothes and papers had been thrown on the floor.

On the walls were a charcoal sketch of South African leader Nelson Mandela, a caricature of an African-American Bart Simpson under the phrase “Too black, too strong,” and a list of recently posted tenant rules that prohibit loud music, selling of drugs and loitering in the courtyards after 10 p.m.

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In Stephens’ bedroom, blood was splattered on his mattress and on the wall and soaked deep into the carpet.

“You can tell he didn’t have a chance,” said his stepmother, Leisha Curtis.

In Baldwin Park, officers said Derrick Colbert had been arrested without incident, but witnesses said police had fired at least one shotgun blast during the raid and had gone to neighboring apartments to make sure no pellets passed through the walls.

At Colbert’s apartment later, there were the cries of a baby, but no one responded to knocks on the door. Neighbors described him as an alternately polite and hot-tempered man who seemed to run with the wrong crowd.

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“You could tell he didn’t have very good friends, but when he got out of line, you would just have to tell him and he would say, ‘I’m sorry, I understand,’ ” said one neighbor who asked to remain anonymous.

No arrests or property seizures were reported in the other three raids--two in Baldwin Park and one in West Covina.

The four suspects arrested Friday--two male ex-convicts and two women--are still in custody without bail and are expected to be arraigned today at Citrus Municipal Court in West Covina. They are Vincent Hubbard, 26; John Lewis, 21; Lewis’ sister, Robin Machuca, 26; and Lewis’ pregnant girlfriend, Eileen Huber, 20.

They are accused of a string of attacks that began Aug. 18, when Willie Newton Sams, 40, of West Covina, was robbed and shot to death as he walked to a nearby store, then thrown into a dumpster.

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On Aug. 24, Elizabeth Nisbet, 49, of Diamond Bar, was abducted from the Puente Hills Mall in City of Industry as she sat in a car waiting for her husband. Her body, with one gunshot to the head, was found later that day alongside the San Gabriel River Freeway in Irwindale.

Three days later, Shirley Denogean, 56, of Claremont, disappeared after telling co-workers that she was going shopping. Her bullet-riddled body was found alongside the Pomona Freeway in South El Monte.


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