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Two men charged in ‘08 deaths at homeless camp

In November 2008, police say, two gang members entered a secluded homeless encampment covered by brush and trees near the intersection of the 405 and 710 freeways in Long Beach.

The gang members were looking for a homeless man who apparently owed them money for drugs. They located him and allegedly opened fire, killing him.

The gunmen turned to two men and two women at the encampment, authorities say, killing them because they saw the first slaying.

They “were executed ... to ensure there were no witnesses to the crimes,” Long Beach Police Lt. Lloyd Cox said of the Nov. 1, 2008 killings.

After a three-year investigation, police announced arrests Wednesday in the what some in Long Beach had come to call a massacre.

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David Cruz Ponce, 31, of Lancaster and Max Eliseo Rafael, 25, of Los Angeles were charged Wednesday with five counts of murder, which include special circumstances that make them subject to the death penalty. Ponce was also charged with kidnapping and killing a Lancaster man in 2009.

Ponce and Rafael are alleged members of the Nuthood Watts street gang.

The victims were Vanessa Malaepule, 34; her boyfriend Lorenzo Perez Villacana, 44; Katherine Verdun, 24; Hamid “Sammy” Shraifat, 41; and Frederick Neumeier, 53.

The suspects came looking for Villacana, who owed the drug debt, with plans to kill him, police said.

They roamed around the vacant land near the freeway interchange but could not find Villacana or the encampment.

They eventually came across Shraifat in the vicinity. Police allege that Ponce and Rafael kidnapped him at gunpoint and forced him to lead them to the camp.

“These victims were not targeted because they were homeless,” Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell said. “This encounter stemmed from a personal vendetta of one of the suspects as a result of an ongoing dispute with one of the victims over narcotics. The other victims were killed to ensure there were no witnesses to this crime.”

Police discovered the gruesome scene a day later, after an anonymous caller told officers to go to the 1500 block of West Wardlow Road. When Long Beach police arrived at the crime scene east of Santa Fe Avenue near Tanaka Park, they found two women and three men dead, some with multiple gunshot wounds.

Authorities believe all five victims were friends who socialized frequently. Malaepule was not homeless. An unemployed single mother of six children ages 8, 10, 13, 14, 15 and 16 at the time, she lived with her mother a mile from the interchange.

Detectives said they slowly pieced together the case. Ponce was arrested in 2010 and Rafael in 2011 on unrelated criminal charges. Officials said Thursday that they believe that Ponce is responsible for other killings, including two in Long Beach.

Long Beach Mayor Bob Foster said it was important that police had an arrest in the case — even if it took three years.

“It demonstrates that we will not stop. We will find you and we will bring you to justice,” he said.

McDonnell added: “We hope that the news we’re sharing today will help ease the pain for the families that have had to endure these past three years while wondering what happened to their loved ones and why.”

ruben.vives@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com


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