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Man charged in four killings was known as kind, helpful neighbor

On Hoover Street in Harbor Gateway, John Wesley Ewell was the guy neighbors turned to when they needed something fixed in their house.

“He’s a real nice guy. The kind of guy who would give the shirt off his back,” said neighbor Sheila Spinks, who said Ewell recently fixed a light sensor for her. “He didn’t want money for it.”

So when Denice Roberts was killed inside her home on the block last month, Ewell was the last person anyone suspected.

But L.A. County prosecutors charged 53-year-old Ewell with killing Roberts and three other people in a series of home robberies over the last month. Authorities allege that Ewell cased neighborhoods in Hawthorne and Harbor Gateway, pretending to be a utility worker to gain entry to homes. Surveillance tape shows a man carrying a briefcase being let into one of the homes.

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Spinks said she and other neighbors can’t believe Ewell is responsible. “Everyone is very surprised. His wife is devastated. It is a shock to everybody that knows him. He likes to talk to kids, tell them to stay out of trouble, stay on the right path,” she said. “This seems way out of his character.”

Ewell, who worked as a repairman with his father, was arrested Oct. 23 in connection with the killing of a couple in Hawthorne during a robbery. Leamon Turnage, 69, and his wife, Robyn, 57, were found strangled in their home Oct. 22. Prosecutors allege that Ewell bound and gagged the couple before taking jewelry and other valuables. Leamon Turnage, a plumber and contractor, was killed in his garage. His wife was found inside the house.

On Wednesday, L.A. County prosecutors charged Ewell with the Sept. 24 killing of Hanna Morcos, 80, in Hawthorne and the Oct. 13 killing of Roberts, 53, two doors down from Ewell’s own home. Authorities said they connected him to the crimes in part because he used the Turnages’ credit cards to purchase gasoline at a local Shell station. Security tapes from the gas station helped identify him. Deputies also found property from the four victims in his possession, according to prosecutors.

Investigators allege that Ewell forced his way into Morcos’ home and took jewelry and other valuables. Morcos, an Egyptian native and retired county employee, had a fatal heart attack while gagged and bound, investigators say. Morcos’ wife was asleep in the house at the time of the attack and was not injured.

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“My grandfather was … determined to see the good in people,” Diana Seif said at a news conference with Sheriff Lee Baca after the killing. “He was very much like a candle in a dark room.”

The day after the news conference, Ewell allegedly killed the Turnages.

The series of killings has residents on Hoover Street stunned.

Like the other victims, Roberts was bound and gagged before being strangled. Authorities said they don’t know if Ewell and Roberts knew each other. But neighbors suspect they were at least friendly because the neighborhood is fairly tight-knit.

Spinks said she can’t understand why someone would hurt Roberts.

“She’s a person who didn’t go nowhere, didn’t bother nobody. All she did was go to church every Sunday and stay in the house,” she said.

Ewell is described by sheriff’s detectives as a career criminal who since the 1980s has been convicted of robbery, burglary and grand theft. He was charged in September, before the killings, with felony second-degree burglary from a Hawthorne Home Depot store.

He had apparently lived on Hoover Street for five years.

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ching-ching.ni@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com


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