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Death Term Ordered for Man in 'Mall Murders' : Crime: Three others are sentenced to life in prison for 1991 series of kidnapings and killings.

March 04, 1993|VICKI TORRES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The young ringleader of a group dubbed the "mall murderers" was sentenced Wednesday to death and his three cohorts were ordered to spend their lives in prison for a series of slayings and kidnapings in the San Gabriel Valley in 1991.

John Irving Lewis, 22, handcuffed with his feet shackled in chains, sat impassively as Pomona Superior Court Judge Clarence Stromwall said he must die in the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison.

Lewis--who told police that he committed the crimes "to get back at society"--was convicted of five murders and was the only one of the four defendants found guilty Dec. 18 of all 27 criminal charges arising from the summertime crime rampage.

A few hours later, heavily armed sheriff's deputies hustled Lewis out of Pomona after receiving reports that he planned to try to escape. On Tuesday, jailers discovered that Lewis had a shank, a piece of metal that can be sharpened into a knife.

The other defendants--Robbin Machuca, 27, Lewis' half sister; Vincent Hubbard, 27, Machuca's former boyfriend, and Eileen Huber, 21, Lewis' former girlfriend--were brought in separately Wednesday for sentencing to life in prison without possibility of parole.

In addition, Hubbard, who was convicted of two of the five murders, received an eight-year, eight-month term, plus another life sentence. Machuca and Huber, who were both convicted of three of the five murders, each received a two-year term, plus additional life sentences.

Machuca, who plans to marry the father of her youngest child and who has been undergoing counseling from Chaplain Debbie Chaney at Sybil Brand Institute, the county's women's jail, bid the chaplain an upbeat goodby as she was taken back to jail.

Only Huber, who fought back tears, seemed distressed.

The killings began July 5, 1991, when Jose Avina, 22, of Norwalk was shot while stopped in his pickup truck at a Monrovia intersection, and ended the next month when Shirley Denogean, 56, of Claremont was shot repeatedly along the Pomona Freeway near the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area. The crimes were called the "mall murders" because two of the victims were kidnaped at gunpoint from the Puente Hills Mall, forced to withdraw money from automated teller machines and shot. Their bodies were dumped along area freeways.

The four were arrested in West Covina on Aug. 30, 1991, after a security camera photographed them taking money from an automated teller machine. Under California law, Lewis' death penalty will be automatically appealed. Attorneys for the others said they will file appeals.

Some said Wednesday's proceedings brought the nightmare to an end.

"I can get on with the rest of my life; a big burden is lifted off me," said Loretta Sams, 42, of West Covina. She is the widow of Willie Newton Sams, 40, who was killed Aug. 18.

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