Dead gunman ID’d as father of his hostage

Manuel Benitez, a former child actor who was the main suspect in his girlfriend’s 2004 slaying, had been on the run for more than four years with the couple’s young son when police finally caught up with him this week in El Monte.

There was no indication that anyone knew the “suspicious person with a child” first reported to authorities Tuesday was the man once featured on “America’s Most Wanted.”

But when officers approached Benitez, 39, at a local strip mall, he brandished a gun and retreated into the bathroom of a Chinese restaurant, using his 7-year-old son as a hostage.


During the two-hour standoff that followed, Benitez told police he was getting tired and that he was going to harm the boy, authorities said.

When the bathroom door finally opened, police fired a flash-bang grenade inside and then shot Benitez.

The boy was shot in the leg, but does not appear to have life-threatening injuries, police said. It is unclear whether Benitez or police officers shot the boy.

Benitez was wanted by state and federal authorities in connection with the June 2004 slaying of his live-in girlfriend, Stephanie Spears. According to court documents, Benitez used a dumbbell to beat Spears to death and fled with their then 3-year-old son.

According to court documents, Benitez’s mother, Elizabeth Velasco, withdrew $20,000 from her bank account in the days leading up to Spears’ killing. Velasco was originally wanted for questioning in connection with the young boy’s disappearance, and police are still searching for her.

As a child actor, Benitez was best known for working under the stage name Mark Everett. He starred in commercials, TV shows and movies, including “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure,” “Stand and Deliver” and “Trapper John, M.D.,” according to the Internet Movie Database.

Police said he was rumored to speak several languages, including German, French, Spanish and Cantonese, and used aliases such as Mark Evers and Markus Everett.

According to the 2004 affidavit of an FBI special agent, Benitez and his mother had “fallen on hard times since his acting years” and in the years before Spears’ death had lived between Coral Gables, Fla., and Southern California.

In 2003, Benitez was convicted of carrying a loaded firearm. And after years away from the camera, he reappeared in 2005 as a real-life fugitive featured on “America’s Most Wanted.”

In 2006, he was charged with “unlawful flight to avoid prosecution” in connection with Spears’ slaying, according to his profile on an FBI website. A federal warrant was issued and a $20,000 reward offered for information leading to his capture.

Tuesday’s incident, according to witnesses, began in the parking lot at Santa Fe Plaza, a strip mall in the 3500 block of Santa Anita Avenue in the heart of El Monte.

An El Monte police officer was called to the scene about 2:30 p.m. to investigate reports of a suspicious man and a young boy. The officer approached the pair and told Benitez to let go of the child, said El Monte Police Det. Ralph Batres.

Benitez resisted and fled, pulling the boy with him. With the boy in a headlock and a gun held to the child’s head, Benitez tried to enter the El Sombrero Restaurant, according to a restaurant employee.

“He tried to come in the front door, and one of our waitresses came in screaming,” the employee said. Another worker barricaded the door to stop the man from entering. After several attempts, Benitez tried another door.

When he couldn’t get in, Benitez gave up and ran across the parking lot to Tai Pan Chinese Food, where he barricaded himself and the child in a bathroom. He then “threatened to kill himself, the juvenile, and any responding officers,” according to a news release from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

Dozens of officers arrived at the scene, including several SWAT officers and a special crisis negotiating team that set up outside the bathroom and tried for two hours to persuade Benitez to surrender.

Police later discovered that Benitez had two handguns -- a semiautomatic pistol and a revolver.

Henry Villan, 35, was standing in the parking lot at Santa Fe Plaza on Tuesday talking to a friend when he saw a man roughly dragging a young boy by his T-shirt.

“I just seen a guy taking a kid,” Villan said.

At first, Villan said, he thought nothing of it because he assumed that the man was the boy’s father.

“Sometimes you see bad parents,” Villan said.


Times staff writers Raja Abdulrahim and Kate Linthicum contributed to this report.