[UPDATED with More Killings Alleged:] David Cruz Ponce and Max Eliseo Rafael, Convicted Felons, Busted for Homeless-Camp Massacre

UPDATE, JAN. 19, 1:30 P.M.: From the Los Angeles Times: “Long Beach police said they believe that Ponce is responsible for other killings, including two in the Long Beach area. Authorities did not release details on those two cases but said the slaying occurred in the downtown Long Beach area and that one involved a woman.”

UPDATE, JAN. 19, 10:39 A.M.: Two convicted felons who belong to the Nuthood Watts street gang and are already behind bars now have something else in common: arrests for a laundry list of murder counts, special circumstances allegations and sentencing enhancements for one of the worst mass killings in Long Beach history. At yesterday afternoon's press conference, Police Chief Jim McDonnell announced that David Cruz Ponce, 31, of Lancaster, and Max Eliseo Rafael, 25, of Los Angeles, were each charged with five special circumstance murders in the case involving the gunning down of three men and two women at a homeless encampment next to the 405 freeway on Nov. 2, 2008.

The pair faces special circumstance allegations of murder in the commission of kidnapping and murder of witnesses to a crime, murder by active participants in a criminal street gang, kidnapping to commit another crime and conspiracy to commit a crime. Ponce is also hit with two counts of possession of a firearm by a felon, and Wednesday he was also charged with the March 2009 kidnapping and murder of Lancaster resident Tony Bledsoe. Both he and Rafael have also been linked to a 2010 murder plot involving a rival gang member that Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies broke up.

The alleged motive for the Long Beach massacre: Lorenzo Perez Villacana, one of the five victims, owed Ponce drug money.

According to the criminal complaint: a week before the murders, Ponce robbed Villacana at the encampment to collect on the debt. Ponce then returned with Rafael to get the rest of the money but could not find the lot with tents and mattresses near the Santa Fe Avenue off-ramp to the 405 Freeway because it was concealed by heavy brush.

So, the baddies kidnapped a camp dweller, Hamid “Sammy” Shraifat, 41, of Signal Hill, to lead them there at gunpoint. Besides Villacana and Shraifat, the murdered included Katherine Verdun, 24, of Carson; Frederick Neumeier, 53; and Villacana's girlfriend, Vanessa Malaepule, a 34-year-old Long Beach mother of six.

All were homeless except Malaepule, and those who did not owe Ponce money were killed because they were witnesses.

Rafael is scheduled to be arraigned today and Ponce Friday in Los Angeles. It will be a short trip for Rafael, who is already being held at the Los Angeles County Jail on an ex-felon with a firearm charge unrelated to the Long Beach massacre. Ponce is being transferred from a state prison. Authorities were unsure Wednesday what the exact charges were that put Ponce there, but his priors include robbery, receiving stolen property and drug possession.

So, why did it take so long to make the arrests? Police theorize that tipsters had to be assured the suspects were already behind bars before they could safely be ratted out.

ORIGINAL POST, JAN. 18, 3 P.M.: North Orange County is not the only area dealing with murders where homeless people sleep. On Nov. 2, 2008, three men and two women were massacred at a homeless encampment near the Santa Fe Avenue off-ramp to the 405 Freeway in Long Beach. All these years later, one might assume that the victims were long forgotten and finding their killer or killers was not as important as it would be if the murdered was, say, a blond co-ed at Long Beach State.

Wrong assumption, apparently.

Homicide detectives swear they have been following leads in the case since the morning of Nov. 2, 2008, when an anonymous tipster led them to the encampment that was behind a building on Wardlow Avenue, obscured by brush and hidden to motorists converging at the busy intersection of the 405 freeway and Interstate 710. The fruits of that labor will pay off this afternoon, when Police Chief Jim McDonnell is scheduled to announce arrests have been made in the case.

All the agency is releasing at this point is suspects are in custody. More details are said to be coming at 4 p.m. when McDonnell is joined by Mayor Bob Foster and Lt. Lloyd Cox of the Homicide Detail in the first floor Community Room at police headquarters on West Broadway.

Officers arrived at the camp to find the bodies of Hamid “Sammy” Shraifat, 41, of Signal Hill; Katherine Verdun, 24, of Carson; Frederick Neumeier, 53; Vanessa Malaepule, 34; and her boyfriend Lorenzo Perez Villacana, 44, all of Long Beach. They had all been shot to death. Not all of them were homeless; some came to the camp to party.

Malaepule, who had lived a couple miles away, left behind six children.

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