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‘Overwhelming evidence’ may lead to conviction in homeless killings


A prosecutor told jurors this week that there is overwhelming evidence against two reputed gang members charged in the 2008 killings of five people at a homeless encampment near a freeway in Long Beach, while attorneys for the men countered that the two had been wrongly accused.

In her final argument, Deputy District Attorney Cynthia Barnes told the jury hearing the case against David Cruz Ponce, 36, and Max Eliseo Rafael, 31, that the defendants’ own jailhouse statements prove their guilt in 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.

“He’s not falsely bragging … He’s a killer and he’s bragging about it,” Barnes said of one jailhouse recording of Ponce.

Of a recorded conversation between Ponce and Rafael, the prosecutor said, “If you’re Rafael and you’re innocent, would you be whispering about it? … They’re whispering about the details. He’s doing that because he’s the other shooter.”

“The evidence proves their clients guilty,” Barnes said of the defense attorneys’ arguments.

One of Ponce’s attorneys, Robert A. Schwartz, countered that 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—who is facing a possible death sentence if convicted—is also charged with the March 23, 2009, kidnapping and murder of Tony Bledsoe in the Lancaster area, along with possession of a firearm by a felon.

Ponce’s lawyer said there is “no physical evidence” connecting Ponce to the killings. He told jurors that his client’s jailhouse statements are “riddled with lies and misstatements showing he wasn’t there,” and that “a lot of information” about the slayings was available in media accounts.

Rafael’s attorney, Marc Lewinstein, asked jurors to determine if the statements were “false bravado” rather than actual admissions.

“Max Rafael is not a murderer,” Lewinstein told jurors.

He urged jurors to set aside their emotions and to be “neutral and dispassionate when making your findings” after seeing what he called “heart- breaking photographs” of the victims and hearing recordings of inmates “bragging like it’s some kind of sport.”

Rafael’s attorney has suggested that it was not his client but another man—to whom Villicana allegedly owed money—who was one of the two people who went to the encampment and carried out the attacks. The prosecutor countered in her rebuttal argument that jurors did not hear any evidence that the man was even in Long Beach that day.

The seven-woman, five-man panel was sent home for the day shortly after being handed the case. They are due back at the downtown Los Angeles courthouse Friday for deliberations.

Ponce and Rafael are charged with five counts of murder for the Long Beach killings. The murder charges include the special circumstance allegations of multiple murders, murder during the commission of a kidnapping, murder of witnesses to a crime and murder while an active participant in a criminal street gang, along with gang allegations. The two men are also charged with kidnapping Shraifat.

Prosecutors opted not to seek the death penalty against Rafael, who could face a maximum of life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted of the killings.

After the two were charged, then-Long Beach Police Chief Jim McDonnell said, “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 the result of an ongoing dispute with one of the victims over narcotics. The other victims were killed to ensure that there were no witnesses to this crime.”

Ponce and Rafael were charged in January 2012 with the killings and have remained jailed without bail.