Led by a tip to a roadside clearing in a remote San Fernando Valley canyon Tuesday, Los Angeles police discovered the bodies of five people who worked on a catering truck that had been found ransacked and abandoned in North Hollywood two days earlier.
The hands of the victims were bound with tape and their bodies left just beyond a guardrail in the 8400 block of La Tuna Canyon Road, according to witnesses.
The victims were identified as Ismael Cervantes Sr., 43, of Sylmar; his son, Ismael Cervantes Jr., 13, of North Hollywood; the truck's cook, Francisco Gasca, 31, of North Hollywood, and two brothers who did odd jobs for Cervantes--Heriberto Sandoval, 19, and Jesus Sandoval, 16, also of North Hollywood.
Investigators said the five had wounds indicating they were shot and stabbed, but the motive and possible killers remained unknown.
Though robbery was a possibility, police said it was doubtful that Ismael Cervantes had more than $400 with him in his truck--a fixture for 10 years in a predominantly Latino neighborhood on Lankershim Boulevard. Police would not say whether money was found in the truck or on the victims.
"We still have a great deal of unanswered questions at this point," said Lt. John Zorn, head of the investigation.
Relatives said Cervantes' food truck had been robbed about a month ago by four armed men but Cervantes did not report the incident because he did not want to alarm his family. "Last time they held up the truck they took his money and they let them go. . . . This time they took everything, my brother, my nephew, the other people," said Armando Cervantes, the caterer's brother.
Police found the bodies after a man who lives in the area called to say he had seen them Monday while walking his dog on La Tuna Canyon Road. The man, whose identity was not divulged, told police he saw the bodies after they had drawn the attention of his dog. But he thought they were discarded mannequins and did nothing.
The man called after seeing news reports on the missing vendors, police said. Zorn said the man is not a suspect.
Investigators spent hours at the scene but said little about their findings. Roadblocks were set up on the quiet street, which runs between steep, chaparral-covered foothills. Detectives worked beneath a plastic canopy set up by the Fire Department to protect against the rain, which Zorn said hampered efforts to find minute evidence.
It was not clear whether the victims had been killed there or elsewhere, Zorn said. He said the coroner's office would try to perform autopsies on all five victims today. He declined to say whether there were signs of a struggle. He acknowledged that more than one killer could have been involved, as suggested by such evidence as the different weapons used and the difficulty one person would have had controlling five people.
Relatives and acquaintances said the elder Cervantes had no vices or debts that would have attracted enemies. Customers regarded Cervantes as good-natured and generous.
"He was so nice, he gave away free food" to homeless people, said Arturo Sida, who works at See & Save furniture store in the 6800 block of Lankershim Boulevard, where Cervantes routinely parked his truck six days a week.
The victims were reported missing by family members early Sunday. Police and acquaintances said the truck usually was in place from late afternoon until after midnight. Cervantes drew customers from nearby automobile, manufacturing and furniture shops in the afternoons and evenings and from a handful of dancing clubs at night.
Zorn said investigators have determined that the white truck, with "Tacos Tlaquepaque" painted in red on the side, left its usual space between 8:30 and 10:30 p.m. Saturday. Police and Cervantes family members found it about 4:30 p.m. Sunday behind a tire store at Lankershim and Strathern Street, about 12 blocks to the north.
Police said the truck had been ransacked and a small amount of human blood was found inside.
Zorn said other evidence indicated that the truck was commandeered and hurriedly driven away from its usual post. He said police believe the truck was abandoned within two hours of being hijacked.
The vehicle was found with the cooking grill still on and food left in the midst of preparation, he said. Also left open were serving windows used when the truck is stationary.
Jim Semmelroth, an area resident who watched through a telescope as police worked at the La Tuna scene, said he saw the bodies lying face down in a pile, three on top of two others. He said the victims' hands were bound behind their backs and a roll of black electrical tape was left on one man's back.
Coroner's spokesman Scott Carrier said the victims were shot and stabbed in the upper bodies and heads, but he was unable to say whether each victim was both shot and stabbed.
Zorn said the slayings bore no resemblance to any other killings in the area. Last month, four members of a Korean-American family were found murdered in their Granada Hills home. Those killings remain unsolved.
The bodies were identified by clothing and other evidence, Zorn said. Several members of the Cervantes family gathered at a home in Sylmar were told of the slayings by police shortly before noon. Paramedics were summoned to care for a woman who collapsed after being informed of the deaths.
Two of the elder Cervantes' brothers and a brother-in-law drove to La Tuna Canyon to see what other information they could learn from police but were not allowed past a roadblock.
"We just (heard) the news," said the brother-in-law, Juan Ferrer of Sylmar. "We are trying to find out what is going on."
Ferrer said the family had no idea who would kill Cervantes or the others.
Times staff writer Julio Moran contributed to this story.
1. On Saturday night, the owner of a catering truck, his 13-year-old son and three employees disappeared from the Lankershim Boulevard site where they parked almost daily.
2. The truck was found Sunday afternoon behind a tire store a few blocks away.
3. On Tuesday, the bodies of the five missing people were found in a clearing off La Tuna Canyon Road.