‘Wrong place at the wrong time’

Sahagun and Bloomekatz are Times staff writers.

Vanessa Malaepule wasn’t homeless. She lived with her mother and six children in a modest stucco house in Long Beach. But about five weeks ago, she began dating a man at a roadside encampment, and on Monday her family lamented that the relationship led her to be, as one relative put it, “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Her body -- along with those of three men and another woman -- was found Sunday at what appeared to be a homeless camp near the 405 Freeway in Long Beach, authorities said Monday. All had been shot.

Along with Malaepule, 34, authorities identified Lorenzo Perez Villacana, 44, a denizen of the dark hideaway beneath low-hanging boughs of bottlebrush trees beside the Santa Fe Avenue offramp. As investigators continued to search for clues, 13 relatives of Malaepule gathered at the encampment to light candles and pray.


“It’s sad, real sad,” said Fauamoa Palaita, one of the relatives. “I feel hurt. We can’t believe it.”

The five bodies were discovered after an anonymous tipster called police Sunday morning. On Monday, police were still searching for a motive -- and hoping the mysterious informant would call back.

At a news conference Monday, Long Beach Police Chief Anthony Batts described the other victims as a Middle Eastern man in his 40s, a white man in his 50s and a Latino woman in her 20s. Their names were withheld pending notification of next of kin. It was unclear which of the men was Malaepule’s boyfriend, though her family said he was among the dead.

All of the victims died of multiple gunshot wounds, Batts said, and investigators have received reports that “there may have been drug sales” at the encampment.

News of the murders stunned social workers who assist the estimated 1,100 chronically homeless men and women believed to live in the maze of freeway crawl spaces, underbrush and crude shelters in the Los Angeles River corridor.

“This is devastating news for us -- unexpected and horrific,” said Susan Price, homeless services officer with the Long Beach Department of Health and Human Services. “People are very concerned about this level of violence.”

Malaepule, who was unemployed, lived about two miles from the crime scene with her mother and six children -- ages 8, 10, 13, 14, 15 and 16 -- who joined other relatives visiting the camp Monday.

To reach the secluded camp on the northern edge of the city, Malaepule’s relatives walked down a narrow dirt path bordered by a chain-link fence topped by razor wire on one side and lined with thick brush on the other.

By Monday morning, after about 12 hours of work, Long Beach homicide investigators had finished combing the area for evidence and had removed the tape marking the crime scene. But there were still some remnants of the camp, including soiled brown rugs spread over the dirt, gallon-sized water jugs and a few large garbage bags full of fast-food wrappers.

Malaepule’s mother, who declined to give her name, placed an armful of yellow lilies and white roses on the ground. Then she leaned a framed photograph of her daughter against the flowers. Other relatives lighted tall votive candles.

“She was a good person,” said Malaepule’s sister, Veronica Puaauli, 27. “Very funny. Everybody loved her.”

Some relatives expressed mixed feelings about her boyfriend. Malaepule would visit the camp to spend time with him, they said.

“She was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Fiaora Tuitasi, 21. “I met him two or three times. He was really nice, and really really cool.”

Malaepule’s uncle, Ilager McMoore, disagreed. “Some people say he was no good,” said Malaepule, 42. “He got in a fight with a guy from another group about a week ago.”

As McMoore and other family members surveyed the barren camp, they were accompanied by a self-described homeless advocate who called himself Apostle Larry Mays. While the family prayed over the burning candles and a framed photo of Malaepule, Mays stepped forward.

“We pray the enemy who did this will be caught,” he said. “In the name of Jesus we pray.”

Ed Winter of the Los Angeles County coroner’s office said autopsies and toxicology tests would be conducted today on the bodies, which were discovered on the ground in an area 30 to 40 feet wide.

Police were directed to the crime scene by an anonymous tipster who called from a pay phone Sunday morning. Police have asked the caller to come forward to offer more information.

Although Winter said the killings apparently occurred Saturday afternoon or night, neighbors reported hearing yelling and gunfire, and then a car speeding away after midnight.

News reports of the grisly slayings moved Fabiola Navarro, 28, to come to the crime scene Monday. She feared that her sister was among the dead.

“The last time I heard from her was a month ago,” said Navarro, who had spent hours driving along freeways in search of homeless people who might have information about her sister.

She was somewhat relieved to learn late Monday that the Latino woman who died was far younger than her sister.