County officials shut down a housing program for about 50 young adults transitioning out of foster care last month after learning that one unit in a La Verne apartment building where several lived was the alleged site of a killing and the subject of a human trafficking investigation, according to authorities and court documents.
A juvenile girl who had run away from foster care housing was among four people arrested and charged in connection with the killing of John Aguila, whose burned body was found in Upland on Aug. 23, said Lt. Travis Tibbetts of the West Covina Police Department.
The homicide investigation led police to the La Verne apartment unit where Aguila had been directed after he “was engaged in a conversation related to the solicitation of prostitutes” via text messages, according to a search warrant issued Aug. 26 by an L.A. County Superior Court judge in Pomona.
Investigators believe that Aguila, a 28-year-old seasonal firefighter from West Covina, was killed in the unit and his body was dumped and burned in Upland, according to the warrant and criminal complaint. The apartment unit was also the site of an investigation into possible human trafficking and prostitution, according to the warrant.
Foster youth were not living in the unit where police believe Aguila was killed, county officials said.
Elijah Thomas Rouse, 18, and Shaun Cardarelli, 37, have been charged with murder during the commission of a robbery. Davone Anthony Smith, 26, has been charged with accessory to murder. A 16-year-old has been charged in juvenile court with murder and robbery, according to the L.A. County district attorney’s office.
Officials with the county Department of Children and Family Services and the district attorney declined to comment on the juvenile’s ties to the foster care system and the criminal case, citing the confidentiality of foster youth and juvenile court proceedings.
The abrupt closure of the transitional housing program for young adults ages 18 to 21 came almost immediately after Bobby Cagle, director of Children and Family Services, said he learned of the murder investigation on Nov. 18.
The program, run by the nonprofit David & Margaret Youth and Family Services, is one of several in the county that place young adults in the foster care system in apartments and help them continue their education or get jobs and learn to live independently.
At the time of the closure, the county cited “safety concerns” in its decision but did not elaborate.
The November shutdown sent the young adults scrambling to find alternate housing. Seventeen of them — six living at the La Verne apartment building where the killing is believed to have taken place and 11 at other nearby apartments — had only three days to move. An additional 39 young adults who were served by the same David & Margaret program in other cities were not given an immediate deadline.
The county also terminated a separate, emergency shelter program run by David & Margaret on its La Verne campus, a complex of offices and residential cottages. That program serves girls and women younger than 21 who cannot be placed anywhere else and often have long histories of trauma, including being victims of violence and sex trafficking.
“The information that I received from law enforcement led me to have heightened concern around the youth being served by David & Margaret,” Cagle said. “This is really also kind of a cumulative effect. … We’ve had ongoing concerns.”
Cagle said concerns about the “commercial sexual exploitation of children” factored into his decision, which he made in conjunction with the staff of L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose district includes La Verne.
“To the extent possible, we try to assure that all of our kids are placed in a location that is not conducive to them being engaged in criminal activity,” Cagle said. But, he added, “youth abscond from our custody and during those time periods they’re at increased risk.”
Charles Rich, executive director of David & Margaret, said the runaway girl had previously stayed at his organization’s emergency shelter but was no longer in its care at the time of her arrest.
“The youth in that program have very challenging backgrounds and experienced a lot of trauma in their lives,” Rich said.
Immediately after police searched the La Verne apartment in August, the four foster youth housed in the building at the time were moved to apartments in other locations, according to Rich and Children and Family Services officials. Two of them later chose to move back.
Cagle said he did not know about the August murder investigation or its “relationship to our youth” until his November contact with La Verne police.
“To be honest with you, I don’t think I knew that we moved those kids for that temporary period of time,” he said, referring to the August actions. County social workers were informed of the moves by David & Margaret staff, a spokeswoman for the Department of Children and Family Services said in an email.
The emergency shelter program, which houses girls and women younger than 21 in dorm-like settings at David & Margaret’s campus in La Verne, has long raised alarms among county officials, youth advocates and local police. The program, meant to offer a way station en route to a more permanent placement, serves some of the most vulnerable youth in foster care. A significant portion of the clients repeatedly run away or stay longer than they are supposed to because the county can’t find an alternate placement for them.
The campus generated more than 1,000 police calls in 2017, and slightly fewer than that in 2018 and 2019, according to data provided by La Verne police. Chief Nick Paz has raised the issue multiple times with Children and Family Services officials and Barger’s office.
Cagle said his agency had taken a variety of actions to “try to make [David & Margaret’s program] work,” including placing social workers from the Department of Children and Family Services on the campus, training the nonprofit’s staff in de-escalation, and linking the police to countywide systems to address sex-trafficked youth.
Rich acknowledged that the emergency shelter had been a source of ongoing difficulties and that he had known it might have to shut down.
But, he said, he was not aware of police calls or complaints about the youth housed in apartments through the separate transitional housing program. That program houses youth who are generally required to be in school or employed, making them comparatively more stable. There are only about 500 beds in the program countywide, and demand far exceeds supply.
Closing the emergency shelter “basically takes care of the police calls and the runaways,” Rich said. “Why do you need to close and uproot the transitional housing program?”
Cagle said problems extended to both programs, and he had reason to believe the youth housed in the La Verne apartment buildings could be at risk of serious harm.
He said he weighed the safety of the youth against the turmoil he knew it would cause them to move, and he instructed staff to work with the youth to identify new placements and help them transition, such as by hiring moving companies or providing transportation to school or jobs.
“No youth has been made homeless in this situation,” Cagle said.