A Houston-area man is now suspected of killing three people and seriously injuring four others in a series of brutal assaults in Los Angeles and Santa Monica that caused widespread panic in the region’s sprawling homeless community, authorities said Tuesday.
Investigators believe Ramon Escobar, 47, savagely beat three homeless men with a baseball bat while they slept on the street in downtown Los Angeles on Sept. 16, Capt. Billy Hayes of the LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Division said at a downtown news conference. Two of those men have since died, and a third remains in critical condition.
Four days later, police said, he traveled to Santa Monica and pummeled 39-year-old Steven Ray Cruze Jr. underneath the Santa Monica Pier. Cruze, a fisherman from San Gabriel, was found dead by a beach maintenance worker the next morning.
Escobar is being held without bail. He was arrested Monday by Santa Monica police after he allegedly attacked another homeless man while he slept near 7th Street and Broadway, authorities said. The victim in that case remains in critical condition.
Investigators will seek to charge Escobar with the murders of Kelvin Williams, 59, Braden Ridout, 34, and Cruze, Hayes said.
Late Tuesday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said Escobar was ordered removed from the U.S. by a federal immigration judge in February 1988 and was deported to El Salvador six times between 1997 and 2011. ICE said Escobar has six felony convictions for burglary and illegal reentry.
“After illegally reentering the U.S. following his most-recent removal, [Escobar] filed an appeal of his immigration case ... in June 2016, which the courts granted in December 2016. ICE released him from custody on an Order of Supervision in January 2017 pursuant to the court’s decision.”
The attacks, all similar in nature, have deeply disturbed the city’s already at-risk homeless population, advocates said. In each assault, the victims were sleeping outside when someone approached in the pre-dawn hours and struck them viciously in the skull, police have said.
The violence began Sept. 8, when Escobar allegedly attacked a homeless man who was sleeping on the beach in Santa Monica about 6:45 a.m., said Capt. Wendell Shirley, head of the Santa Monica Police Department’s criminal investigations bureau. Two days later, he conducted a similar assault against a homeless man in the same area, Shirley said.
One of those victims has been released from the hospital, but another is in a coma.
Hayes said he believes Escobar was targeting men who appeared homeless for the purpose of robbing them, rather than a specific desire to hurt homeless people. Police recovered a baseball bat and bolt cutters during a search of Escobar’s car, said Hayes, who added that he believes the same bat was used in the downtown killings.
As word of Escobar’s arrest began to spread Monday afternoon, officials with the Houston Police Department said they had also been searching for Escobar, whose aunt and uncle disappeared from the Houston area in late August.
Rogelio Escobar, 65, was last seen near a convenience store in Houston on Aug. 26 and left a backpack on the porch of his Prudence Drive home the same day, according to Houston Police Lt. Humberto Lopez. Dina Escobar, 60, went looking for her brother in a 2007 Chevy Uplander and was reported missing days later, Lopez said.
Ramon Escobar is considered a person of interest in their disappearance, according to Lopez, who said foul play is suspected in the case. Lopez said investigators knew Escobar had left Texas and believed he had fled to California.
Houston police have said they want to interview Escobar in connection with the disappearances. On Tuesday, Hayes said Escobar arrived in the Los Angeles area on Sept. 5, three days before the first assault in Santa Monica.
Escobar sometimes lived with his missing uncle, Rogelio, but would disappear for days at a time to seek work as a day laborer, according to Tim Miller, the founder of Texas Equusearch, a horseback rescue group that aids in the search for missing persons. His organization has been involved in the search for Dina and Rogelio Escobar since late August.
Miller said his group found the charred remains of Dina Escobar’s vehicle on a beach in Galveston, about 50 miles outside of Houston, earlier this month. There were no surveillance cameras in the area, which is not located near any homes or businesses, Miller said.
“Whoever did it got out of there before they could be seen,” Miller said of the burned vehicle. He did not know how the vehicle was burned.
Records show Escobar has been arrested several times in the Houston area since the early 1990s for a range of crimes, including burglary, trespassing and assault. He was most recently convicted of assault causing bodily injury in May. His sentence in that case was not clear.
In California, police are still trying to string together a timeline of Escobar’s movements to determine if he is linked to any additional attacks.
The first assaults Escobar has been accused of took place in downtown on Sept. 16, when three homeless men were pummeled with a baseball bat as they slept outside along Flower Street, investigators have said. Two of those victims, Williams and Ridout, died of their injuries last week, according to the Los Angeles County coroner’s office.
The third victim of the downtown attacks remains in “very, very critical condition,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore said during a Tuesday morning meeting of the city’s Police Commission.
Last Thursday, Santa Monica police found the body of Cruze under the Santa Monica Pier. Cruze was beaten to death and suffered major injuries to his head.
Cruze was not homeless, according to his family, but often slept on the beach after fishing overnight in the area.
The assaults have sparked large-scale panic among the region’s sprawling homeless population, according to Mel Tillekeratne, executive director of the Shower of Hope, which provides free mobile showers and other hygiene services to the homeless. As recently as Monday, Tillekeratne said some members of the skid row homeless community told him they were afraid they had spotted the suspect in the downtown attacks milling around the area.
“They saw a person that fit that bow-legged description and they were terrified,” he said, referring to the Los Angeles Police Department’s initial description of the suspect in the downtown slayings. “It’s not just that people are being murdered. You hear of people being bludgeoned to death on city sidewalks. It breaks your heart.”
Tillekeratne said the brutal nature of the recent killings drew media attention because of its proximity to downtown’s bar scene and night life, but warned that the attacks are illustrative of the everyday dangers faced by a community he feels is chronically underserved by the city.
“How do we protect these people who are constantly exposed to the worst forms of violence you could ever think of?” he asked.
At a vigil held in Cruze’s memory in Santa Monica last week, Tillekeratne said he repeatedly warned homeless men and women to take precautions each night because of the possible predator in the area.
“I’m literally telling homeless people don’t sleep in dark places, try to sleep in a well-lit place,” he said. “Do you see how desperate the narrative is?”
Times staff writer Cindy Chang contributed to this report.