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Rage and Alienation Mark Suspects in Mall Murders : Violence: A somewhat unlikely foursome are charged in the slayings of four in the San Gabriel Valley.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Lewis sat in the chilly Sheriff’s Department interview room with a cup of coffee, a jailhouse blanket over his shoulders and a veteran homicide detective’s intense blue eyes staring him in the face.

The detective, Sgt. Mike Lee, watched as the man he had been hunting for six days straight confessed on videotape to a series of random “mall murders” that had terrorized the San Gabriel Valley in late August.

At one point, a single silent sob racked Lewis’ body. For a moment, Lee saw tears in Lewis’ eyes and thought he was about to break down. Instead, Lewis seemed to fire a gun, and his body shuddered with the force of the imagined blast. He fired again. And again. And again.

Were you reliving a murder? Lee asked when Lewis fell still. Yes, Lewis said, adding he wanted to kill as many people as he could to get back at “society.”

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The “mall murders” got under the skin of Southern Californians in a way no slayings had since “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez killed middle-class residents in their homes in 1985. No longer were suburbanites immune to the violence many inner-city residents fear daily. The murderers had reached out into the mainstream of suburban life, making it dangerous to simply run an errand.

Murdered were a Latino youth on his way to see his girlfriend, a black school janitor stopping at an automated teller before dinner, a Scottish-born secretary waiting for her husband at a mall and a Claremont office worker heading into a Hallmark shop for a greeting card. Other killings are still under investigation for possible links to Lewis and three others.

Charged along with Lewis was his girlfriend, Eileen Huber, 20; his sister, Robbin Machuca, 26; and her boyfriend, Vincent Hubbard, 26.

They were an unlikely foursome, at that. Two men and two women. Two Bloods and two Crips. Three had served time, one had never been arrested. None seemingly was disposed to murder.

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People watching their arraignment on the evening news were stunned. Hubbard stuck his tongue out at the cameras. Machuca giggled. Huber looked petulant. Didn’t they care , people asked themselves. Didn’t they care at the very least about the fact that they faced the death penalty?

“I been through worse things than that,” explained Machuca in a recent jail interview with The Times.

A bright young woman with a disarmingly warm smile and gang tattoos identifying her as “Peewee,” Machuca says she isn’t guilty. With her court-appointed attorney, John Tyre, at her side, however, she says she won’t talk specifics.

As for the not caring, she glanced down at her long, blue-frosted nails and said, “I’d rather not care than to care, ‘cuz then you get hurt.”

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Shortly after The Times interviewed Machuca, Lewis’ attorney obtained a sweeping gag order that prevents police, attorneys, prosecutors, court employees and defendants from talking about the case.

Citrus Municipal Judge Fred Felix, who issued the order, had previously sealed other records that included reports of confessions by Lewis and Huber and a list of evidence police said they found in Machuca’s apartment. All sources quoted in this article were interviewed before the gag order.

A lot of history led up to the defiance the four showed in the courtroom that day.

Robbin Machuca and John Lewis were half-siblings. Born to an alcoholic mother who worked double shifts at a convalescent home, they had different fathers, birth certificates show. Hers was an American Indian who was in prison for armed robbery when she was born, she said; his was a pimp shot to death on the streets when he was a baby.

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They grew up with a stepfather who molested them both, Machuca said. She never told her mother because she was afraid of a whipping. Often, she said, she and her two older sisters and brother were beaten with garden hoses and extension cords. If they cried, the whippings lasted longer, she said. They taught themselves never to cry.

At 12, Machuca became pregnant by her stepfather. Confused and afraid, she denied it. Even as the doctor was delivering the baby, she remembered, “I said he was lyin.’ ”

A few months later, she said, her stepfather handed her mother a gun, told her what he’d done, and ordered her to shoot them all. Her mother refused, but wouldn’t kick her husband out, either. Machuca grabbed the baby, jumped out the window and never came back.

She put the baby in foster care. She joined a gang called the West Boulevard Crips in the Crenshaw district and, for two years, supported herself doing burglaries.

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At 15, she said, she confessed to police.

“I wanted to go to jail,” she said, “so I could have a place to stay.”

It was in jail, she said, that she got the counseling that made her realize her family was “sick.” Once, she persuaded her mother to come to a group session. Her mother called her an “animal with no feelings” and accused her of airing her “dirty laundry” in public. She died soon afterward, Machuca said, “and I guess I stopped caring.”

Machuca learned secretarial skills and got a job at a mortgage company in West Covina when she got out. “Ooooh, I was set up in society, gettin’ dressed up and going to the Velvet Turtle for banquets,” she recalled. “It was perfect.”

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Then came the turning point that ended her brief venture into “society.”

Her apartment was burglarized. Ill-prepared to cope with the setback, she returned to familiar ways.

“Ooooh, I was mad!” she said, without a trace of irony. She quit work, started smoking PCP, and never got a real job again. The one thing she felt good about, she said, was that she learned to love the baby she had rejected and saw him regularly. “We grew up together,” she said. When she was 21, she had a baby by a boyfriend, a beautiful little girl she treasured.

Meanwhile, her brother John was growing up “a little demon.”

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When John was small, she said, he would throw rocks at the family German shepherd until one day the dog broke its chain and mauled him viciously. At 8, John was arrested for robbery, she said. At 10, he was in juvenile detention. Machuca, in jail herself at the time, was glad because maybe he would receive the same sort of counseling she had.

If he did, it didn’t seem to help.

“He ain’t got it all,” she said. “My brother, admit it, my brother’s crazy. . . . I think he’s been tormented all his life and he ain’t right. That’s all I can say about him, because I love him.”

Their mother moved to the San Gabriel Valley, and “Bad Johnny,” as she called him, began spending time in Baldwin Park. The seeming antithesis of the American Dream, Baldwin Park was named one of the 14 worst “disaster areas” in the country in 1982. The city was an incubator of social turmoil: poverty, crime, unemployment, gangs, shifting racial composition and high dropout rates.

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Lewis fell in with a family named the Colberts and joined their gang, the Westside Bloods. The Bloods had roots in Los Angeles and were known for drug dealing.

So often have squad cars been dispatched to the Colbert house over the years, according to Baldwin Park police, that dispatchers don’t need to give out the address. Lewis and his sisters grew close to the Colberts. One of his older sisters married Derrick Colbert, 27, a tall, thin man known as “Snake.”

They also came to know Eileen Huber, a teen-ager who lived around the corner.

A freckled strawberry blonde with deep dimples and legs so skinny she reminded people of Popeye’s girlfriend Olive Oyl, Huber came from an entirely different sort of family. First off, Huber was white and her father, Gary Huber, was hard-nosed and hard-working.

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He lives in the same tract house where his daughter grew up. He sees her as a kind of latter-day Patty Hearst, slowly brainwashed by a gang.

He first caught Eileen smoking dope around the time she was 14. He begged her to stop. Later, he thought of kicking her out of the house the way he had kicked out his son. But she was a girl and he couldn’t bring himself to do it.

After he and his wife separated, Eileen argued with her mother and wound up living with her dad. She dropped out of school and became involved with a series of boyfriends who, Machuca said, regularly beat her up.

Still harboring hope for her, Eileen’s father bought her a tan Mercury so she could work and attend night school.

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Curiously, for someone who hung out with gangbangers, Eileen hated guns.

“She had a real phobia about guns,” said her father, a gun-collector and active member of the National Rifle Assn. When he cleaned his guns, he said, Eileen would go into her room and hide.

Once, Huber said, when he got word that gangbangers were headed into the neighborhood, he grabbed a gun, went outside, and flopped down on his belly, ready for a confrontation that never came. Kids in the neighborhood took to calling him “John Wayne.”

Indeed, John Wayne posters paper his living-room walls.

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Eileen filled her bedroom with posters of Lucille Ball and videos of every movie she ever made.

Huber led a reporter into his daughter’s room as a curator might lead a visitor into a wing of a museum that has been shut for years. On the shelves were the stuffed animals of a little girl and novels with titles like “Miss Teen Sweet Valley.”

Written in red felt pen on the wall above her headboard was a nagging bit of graffiti dated July 25, 1990, that Gary Huber said he had never read and could not explain.

“What’s come over you?” it still begs in an adolescent scrawl. “Help me somebody please.”

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Last June, John Lewis got out of a youth camp after a four-year stint for assault with a deadly weapon and burglary, and moved in with his old “homeboys,” the Colberts. Not long afterward, he took up with Eileen Huber, the closest thing to the girl next door.

On July 4, Machuca threw him a party at a park for his 21st birthday. The next night, Lewis would later confess, he killed for the first time.

Jose Avina, 22, of Norwalk, was on his way to visit his girlfriend in Monrovia that night when Lewis and Huber in one car, and Derrick Colbert and another friend in a second, saw Avina’s candy-apple red truck with its fine wheels and big speakers.

Huber would later tell deputies that the foursome went out to “do something” to make money and Colbert’s car rammed Avina’s deliberately to get him to stop. Lewis would contend that the collision was an accident caused by Colbert’s drinking.

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Either way, Lewis said he wound up killing Avina with a shotgun blast as he tried to get away.

Lewis told the detective that once he had killed, he got to thinking about how bad society had been to him and decided he might as well kill again to punish a world that had done him wrong.

Detectives suspect that Lewis also may have been involved one month later in the abduction near Chino of a 55-year-old man, who was robbed and ordered out of his car on an isolated stretch of highway near the Morris Dam.

The victim told detectives that, as he stood above a sheer embankment, one of his two abductors pointed a shotgun at his face and pulled the trigger. The gun misfired and the man survived by leaping down a 200-foot embankment into soft earth.

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About this same time, someone broke into Huber’s home and stole his gun collection. Among the missing weapons was a stainless steel Ruger .359 magnum revolver with a 4-inch barrel.

Sometime in early to mid-August, Robbin Machuca said, her brother quarreled with his homeboys and moved in with her in her West Covina apartment.

By now, Machuca had a new boyfriend, Vincent Hubbard, who also was spending time at her apartment. She first met “Hub” when they were members of the Westside Crips. She never understood why he joined a gang. His mother had a decent office job and his father worked as a caddy. “He didn’t have to be in no gangs,” she said. “He chose to be in a gang.”

Hubbard was 26 when he got out of prison last July 15, a seasoned convict with a string of burglaries and drug and parole violations. While in jail, according to Jerry DiMaggio, regional parole administrator, Hubbard’s condition was diagnosed as “chronic brain syndrome,” in which the mind has been debilitated by drug abuse.

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Now, Machuca had a brother who was a Crip and a boyfriend who was a Blood living under the same roof with her. She saw the potential for trouble and laid down the law.

“Y’all gonna get along,” she warned. “We ain’t come in this world with flags on our toes.”

By mid-August, neighbors at the sprawling, grassy complex where Hubbard, Machuca, Lewis and Huber were hanging out said the parties grew louder. Machuca and Hubbard started smoking one or two PCP-dipped cigarettes a day--mostly at the park so as not to endanger her ability to keep her daughter in case her social worker came around.

At that time, Machuca said, she was ordered evicted because the neighbors were complaining. She dropped out of her high school equivalency and drug programs. “There was just too much on my mind,” she said.

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Over a nine-day period in August, three murders were committed within a short drive of Machuca’s West Covina apartment.

On Aug. 18, Willie Newton Sams, a 40-year-old school janitor from West Covina, made a quick trip to the automated teller in his gold Saab while his wife, Loretta, was home fixing Sunday dinner. His body was found in a school dumpster.

* On Aug. 24, Elizabeth Nisbet, 49, a hospital secretary from Diamond Bar, drove to the Puente Hills Mall with her husband. Born in Scotland, she liked to listen to bagpipe music in their Ford Bronco. She waited in the car while her husband, Neil, went inside to make a payment on a gold chain he had recently given her as a present.

When he returned, she was gone. A California Highway Patrol officer found her body when he stopped to issue a ticket on the freeway.

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* On Aug. 27, word came back to Sheriff’s Department homicide detectives that the bullet-riddled body of a woman had been found in her 1980 silver Mercedes-Benz alongside the Pomona Freeway in South El Monte. Shirley Denogean, 56, of Claremont, had stopped at the Puente Hills Mall to buy a greeting card on her lunch hour.

It was, in the end, an act of carelessness that helped homicide detectives unravel the case that by then was generating headlines and fear. Detectives discovered a crumpled ATM receipt, thoughtlessly discarded, on the floor of Nisbet’s immaculately clean Ford Bronco. From her bank, detectives obtained security photographs taken on the day the cash had been withdrawn. When the photos were enhanced by a computer, they showed two possible suspects in broad daylight at the front of a long line of customers. Behind them, the camera had picked up Nisbet’s Bronco, right down to the decals on the door.

Meanwhile, a ballistics test showed that the same gun was used in the Nisbet and Sams murders. On the day the tests came back, a couple tried to buy $700 worth of clothes on Sams’ stolen American Express card at a Miller’s Outpost in the San Gabriel Valley. When the couple left the clothes on the counter and drove off in a tan Mercury, an alert clerk noted the license plate number.

It was registered to a Baldwin Park address. Police staked out the home, but the car didn’t turn up. In trying to find out more about the car and the two suspects in the bank photos, deputies stopped at the West Covina police station to see if officers there could help.

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By sheer coincidence, West Covina Police Officer Marty Sevilla walked by as the sheriff’s deputies were talking about the case. He said he knew that a tan Mercury belonged to some known troublemakers at the Woodside Apartments, where he patrolled. He said two gang-detail officers knew their names. Those officers immediately identified the people in the ATM photo as Robbin Machuca and John Lewis.

They even knew their address.

At 8 a.m. on Aug. 29, three teams of homicide detectives who had been assigned to the three killings met to pool their evidence. They had been investigating around the clock, and some had been wearing the same clothes for days.

Although veteran detectives learn not to let their cases get to them, these murders were different. “These were pure victims,” Sgt. Lee said. “Not the prostitute out walking at 3 a.m. or the surfer hitchhiking. This is all of us. All of us have ATM cards. All of us go to malls.”

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By midnight, they had awakened a judge to sign a search warrant and had assembled a Special Weapons and Tactics team at the West Covina apartment complex.

First to be arrested was Eileen Huber as she drove to a nearby Jack-in-the-Box. On her finger was a diamond belonging to Nisbet, which Huber said Lewis gave her as an engagement ring.

At 3:40 a.m. on Aug. 30, the SWAT team stormed the apartment, arresting Machuca, Lewis and Hubbard without a struggle. Colbert was arrested a few days later in the Avina murder.

According to court records, a search of the apartment turned up a credit card belonging to Denogean, a stereo from a Saab and duct tape. Guns and ammunition were stashed everywhere--in the dishwasher, in closets and under a mattress. Gary Huber’s stolen stainless steel Ruger was lying on the kitchen table.

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Under Machuca’s daughter’s trundle bed next to a Barbie doll was a loaded assault rifle.

When the four suspects arrived at the Industry sheriff’s station, Hubbard and Machuca refused to talk. “I ain’t scared of death and I ain’t scared of jail,” Machuca told Lee, demanding a lawyer.

Over a Snickers bar, Huber at first denied she had been present at any of the murders, that she had only heard of them from the other suspects. She later changed her story, admitting that she was there when both Avina and Denogean were killed, authorities said. As she spoke, Lee said he thought to himself that she was a rare hybrid: a cross between a Manson girl and a Valley girl.

When Huber first called home from jail, she seemed unaware of the severity of her situation. She talked to her mother about going shopping. But when she called back the next day, she knew she was facing the death penalty.

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“She was like a scared little girl crying, ‘Mommy, tell Daddy to come get me out,’ ” her father, Gary Huber, recalled.

That, of course, was impossible. So he wrote her a note saying he loved her, but was too disappointed in her to visit.

Asked by a reporter how he felt about his Ruger being linked to the “mall murders,” he replied:

“Darlin’, see, I belong to the NRA. I’m a very strong believer in it’s not the guns that kill people, it’s the people. . . . I told the sheriff, if she pulled the trigger, I would be glad to pull the damn plug that puts her away.”

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Unlike the others, John Lewis talked a lot. And his words were horrifying.

As Sgt. Lee’s video camera rolled, Lewis recalled the day Nisbet died. He said he drove Hubbard and Machuca to the Puente Hills Mall to show them how easy it was to rob a jewelry store. Huber, he said, stayed home to baby-sit Machuca’s 5-year-old daughter.

“Let’s rob that lady,” he recalled Hubbard saying about the woman parked next to them. “It’s easier than robbing a store.”

After kidnaping her, he said, they drove to an ATM machine, withdrew some cash and then headed onto the 605 Freeway, where they soon pulled off to the side. Lewis contended that he planned to free Nisbet, but Hubbard reminded him that she could identify them. Lewis said he shot her through a blanket as she screamed for her life.

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Then there was Denogean.

Lewis said that this time Hubbard had stayed home to baby-sit. Accompanied by Machuca and Huber, Lewis said he again drove to the Puente Hills Mall, where they saw Denogean arrive in her Mercedes-Benz and go into the shopping center. While they waited for her to return, Lewis said they got hungry so Machuca brought back Chinese food.

When Denogean returned, Lewis said, they abducted her and drove around to ATMs. Then, with Machuca following, Lewis said that he, Huber and Denogean headed onto the Pomona Freeway in her Mercedes.

It was then that Denogean feared she was going to be murdered, Lewis said. She struggled, called him a “bastard” and tried to grab his gun.

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Lewis said he got mad, stopped along the side of the freeway and marched Denogean down the embankment at gunpoint. When she refused to lie down, he shot her over and over. When he looked up, he saw his sister looking down at him.

None of the attorneys representing the four defendants has talked about their defense strategies. Lewis’ public defender refused to talk to a reporter. Lawyers for Hubbard and Huber failed to return repeated telephone calls. John Tyre, who represents Machuca, allowed her to be interviewed, but not about the case.

The closest she came to flinching in her interview was when asked about the loaded rifle found under her daughter’s bed. “My daughter, that’s what kept me in society this long,” she said heavily.

She said she had argued with her brother about bringing guns into the house. But John needed those guns to feel safe, she said, and if he didn’t feel safe, no one got any sleep. Besides, she said, you couldn’t argue with him because he would get mad, and something inside him would snap.

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Asked if there was anything she regretted, she paused and said: "(I) hurt my kids this time. Lost everything that I worked for. . . . I hate to say it, because I’ll get emotional--(so) I’ll laugh it off.”

Times staff writer Vicky Torres contributed to this story.


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