Man who killed 5 at a Long Beach homeless encampment gets life in prison
A gang member convicted of murdering five people at a Long Beach homeless encampment nearly a decade ago was sentenced Thursday to five consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Charlaine Olmedo called the circumstances of the crime “particularly cruel and vicious” and told Max Eliseo Rafael that he “will have a long time” to think about what transpired.
The judge cited jailhouse statements made by Rafael and co-defendant David Cruz Ponce, saying those were “very damaging” evidence against the two.
“Really, it’s their own words that provide the sufficiency of the evidence,” Olmedo said, noting that there was also independent evidence that linked Rafael to the shootings.
Rafael, 31, and Ponce, 37, were convicted in September of first-degree murder for the Nov. 1, 2008, shooting deaths of Hamid Shraifat, 41, of Signal Hill; Vanessa Malaepule, 34, of Carson; and Frederick Neumeier, 53, Katherine Verdun, 24, and Lorenzo Villicana, 44, of Long Beach.
Along with the five murders, Ponce and Rafael were convicted of kidnapping Shraifat, and jurors found true the special circumstance allegations of multiple murders, murder during the commission of a kidnapping and murder while an active participant in a criminal street gang, along with gang and gun allegations against the two.
Ponce was also convicted of first-degree murder for the March 23, 2009, kidnapping and shooting death of Tony Bledsoe, 18, in the Lancaster area, along with two counts of unlawfully possessing a firearm. Jurors decided in favor of the death penalty for Ponce, who is set to be formally sentenced Feb. 15.
Villicana’s brother, Pablo, told the defendants, “You two gentlemen are evil.” He said he “didn’t have much hope in the system” when his brother was killed, but his perspective has changed since then.
A woman who had adopted Verdun’s son in an open adoption told the judge that Verdun was so much more than a homeless person.
“She wanted him to have the kind of life she couldn’t give him…. She put his needs before her own,” the woman said of Verdun. “That’s the difference between Kat and her murderers.”
Rafael initially declined to speak during the hearing, then told the judge that his only fault was being tied to a “lifestyle that never gave me anything.”
The judge — who noted that Rafael had denied responsibility for the crime — told him that he is a young man who has “decades ahead” to “do a lot of introspection.”
During the trial, Rafael’s attorney, Marc Lewinstein, had suggested the statements made by his client were “false bravado” rather than actual admissions.
“Max Rafael is not a murderer,” Lewinstein told jurors.
One of Ponce’s attorneys, Robert A. Schwartz, told jurors the surreptitious tape recordings were made in the “upside-down world” of county jail in which inmates’ status and reputation are enhanced by claiming to have been involved in crimes.
Ponce’s lawyer maintained that there was “no physical evidence” connecting Ponce to the killings, that his client’s jailhouse statements were “riddled with lies and misstatements showing he wasn’t there,” and that “a lot of information” about the slayings was available in media accounts.
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