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Drug debts prompted killing of 5 in Long Beach homeless camp

January 19, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
A long-running dispute over unpaid drug debts led to the shooting deaths of five people in a Long Beach homeless camp in 2008, police said.

The killings baffled investigators at the time, as there were no witnesses to the crimes. Now, 31-year-old David Ponce and 25-year-old Max Rafael, who are alleged members of the Nutwood Watts criminal street gang, are charged with the murders.

Authorities say Ponce had an ongoing dispute over drugs with one of the victims, 44-year-old Lorenzo Villicana, and killed the other four victims to ensure there would be no witnesses.

The arrests of Ponce and Rafael were announced Wednesday, a day after a serial killer was charged with murdering homeless men in Orange County. According to officials, the timing was purely coincidence.

"As you hear how this investigation unfolded, I'd like to make it clear that these victims were not targeted because they were homeless. 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," said Long Beach Police Department Chief Jim McDonnell.

Both men are charged with five special-circumstance murders, one count each of kidnapping to commit another crime and conspiracy to commit a crime, along with gun and gang allegations.

They are eligible for the death penalty. Both men are currently being held without bail for other crimes. Rafael was expected to be arraigned in court on Thursday and Ponce on Friday.

The 2008 victims were identified as:

  • Vanessa Malaepule, 34 of Carson
  • Lorenzo Villicana, 44 of Long Beach
  • Katherine Lynn Verdun, 24 of Long Beach
  • Frederick Doyle Neumeier, 53 of Long Beach
  • Hamid Shraifat, 41 of Signal Hill

The Associated Press contributed to this story.