The Long Beach Police Department announced Wednesday that charges have been filed by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office against two suspects for the murder of five individuals at a homeless encampment in 2008.
On Sunday, Nov. 2, 2008, Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) police officers were dispatched to the area of Santa Fe Avenue and Wardlow Road regarding a 9-1-1 call in which the caller stated that someone had been killed. Officers from the LBPD, with the assistance of the California Highway Patrol, searched the thick brush in the area near the Santa Fe Avenue off-ramp of the 405 Freeway. There they discovered the bodies of five deceased individuals who had been shot multiple times in a homeless encampment that contained numerous tents, carpeting, a tarp roof, and other items that made it their home.
The five victims were identified by the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office as:
Name Age City of residence
Vanessa Malaepule 34 Carson
Jose Lorenzo Villicana 44 Long Beach
Katherine Lynn Verdun 24 Long Beach
Frederick Doyle Neumeier 53 Long Beach
Hamid Shraifat 41 Signal Hill
Long Beach Police Department Homicide Detectives Mark McGuire and Hugo Cortes were assigned the case and began investigating the incident. Because of the isolated encampment, the task of finding witnesses to the incident was difficult, according to the LBPD. With the assistance of detectives from the LBPD’s Career Criminal Apprehension Team (C-CAT), detectives scoured the area contacting potential witnesses. Additionally, detectives worked with the City’s homeless program to identify potential witnesses.
Detectives recreated each of the victim’s backgrounds to identify known associates through interviews. Within a few weeks of the murders, homicide detectives had identified an unreported incident during which Villicana was robbed and assaulted a week prior to the murder by David Ponce, 31, of Lancaster.
On Nov. 21, 2008, Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, at the request of Fourth District Supervisor Don Knabe, offered a $20,000 reward for information relating to the investigation.
Over the course of the last three years, detectives continued to investigate the robbery and the potential relation to the murders. Detectives were able to establish that there was an ongoing dispute between Villicana and Ponce, who is a documented gang member. Detectives believe that this ongoing dispute over a narcotics debt resulted in Ponce’s plotting the murder of Villicana, an act that included his recruiting an additional suspect to assist him. That additional suspect, also a documented member of the same gang, is identified as Max Rafael, 25, of Los Angeles.
The investigation revealed that on the day of the murders, Ponce and Rafael accosted Shraifat while looking for the encampment. At gunpoint, they forced Shraifat to take them to the encampment where Villicana lived. Once at the encampment, Villicana was murdered. The four other victims were also executed to ensure there were no witnesses to the crime.
Due to the nature of the crimes, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office assigned Special Deputy District Attorney (DDA) Eric Harmon from the Major Crimes Unit to the case. On Jan. 18, 2012, DDA Harmon filed charges that included murder, kidnapping conspiracy and possession of a firearm by a felon with gun and gang allegations against Ponce and Rafael.
Ponce was arrested by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LACSD) in August of 2010 and Rafael was also arrested by LACSD in June of 2011, both for “ex-felon with a firearm.”
During the course of this investigation, homicide detectives have identified at least three additional murders for which Ponce may be responsible. Two of these crimes occurred in the downtown area of Long Beach and are still under investigation. The third occurred in the city of Lancaster and was investigated by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Homicide. The Sheriff’s Department presented this case to DDA Harmon who filed an additional count of murder against Ponce. Detectives believe that Rafael may also be involved in additional murders in Los Angeles County. Both of their photos are being released in case someone may recognize them for their involvement and will come forward.
Anyone who may have any additional information regarding the unsolved murders should contact Long Beach Police Homicide Detectives Mark McGuire and Hugo Cortes at (562) 570-7244. Anonymous tips may be submitted via text or web by visiting tipsoft.com