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Neighbor Is Arrested in Slayings of 4

Crime: Man is described as acquaintance of Whittier family. Investigators release grisly details of attack.

July 15, 2002|LAURA LOH and RICHARD MAROSI | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A 23-year-old neighbor was arrested late Sunday in the slayings of a South Whittier family of four, and investigators said they expect to make additional arrests.

Alfonso Ignacio Morales, whom investigators described as an acquaintance of the Ruiz family, was arrested after detectives received information from neighbors and collected unspecified evidence from the home in the 10200 block of Gunn Avenue, according to a sheriff's spokesman.

"It's too early to talk about a motive," said Deputy Rick Varela, a spokesman for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "We are narrowing the field of additional suspects and hopefully in that process they will be able to detail a motive."

Morales was being held at the Norwalk sheriff's station without bail.

The arrest came about six hours after Lt. Ray Peavy released additional details about the nature of the attack, hoping that anyone with information would come forward. Peavy said the four family members underwent extreme suffering before they were stabbed to death.

Authorities said that 8-year-old Jasmin Ruiz, a bright child who neighbors said had many playmates, was "brutally, sexually assaulted" before her death. Her body, along with those of her mother, father and great-grandmother, had been dragged from room to room, smearing blood on the floor and across walls.

A friend of the family said late Sunday that he had seen Morales several times at the home and that Morales had sold the family a dog. Morales lives in the immediate neighborhood and his family raises dogs, according to the friend.

On Saturday, victim Miguel Ruiz's sister, Olga, was seen taking away a large boxer named Moisha and a small brown mutt named Taylor.

Ruiz, 38, worked out of his home part-time doing computer repairs. Investigators found a computer in a neighbor's backyard Saturday, and family members told authorities that computer equipment was missing from the home.

Peavy said the crime appeared too cruel to have been part of a robbery, but suggested that the house might have been ransacked to conceal a different motive. "A mass murder did occur and a robbery may have occurred," he said.

The other victims were identified as Maritza Trejo, 41, and Miguel Ruiz's grandmother, Ana Luisa Martinez, in her 70s. The Los Angeles County coroner's office will perform autopsies, Lt. Fred Corral said.

Investigators said they believed that more than one person had killed the victims because of the amount of damage inside the home and the nature of the slayings. Sheriff's officials also said they now believe the killings occurred between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Friday.

The home was a hub for neighborhood kids, said Gail Baxter, principal at Howard J. McKibben Elementary School, where Jasmin had been named student of the month at least three times.

"Jasmin was a very sweet, beautiful little girl," Baxter said. "She was very smart--had a lot of friends at school. She was a top student. The whole community--neighborhood--is in shock and in mourning over this."

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'Involved' Parents

Baxter said Jasmin's parents had been "super involved" with her education.

"Mom dropped her off every morning. Dad was waiting for her to get out of school at 2 p.m. every afternoon," Baxter said. "They were really a model family, as far as the school was concerned."

Miguel Ruiz, known as Mike in the neighborhood, was from Puerto Rico and was remembered by neighbors as generous and helpful. He had often bought hamburgers for local children and picked them up after school. He also worked as a car stereo technician for his wife's brother.

Sometimes he fixed his neighbors' computers without charge, and he was known to dish out advice to younger people.

"He would always give me guidance," said Hector Alvarez, a next-door neighbor.

Maritza Trejo was a good cook who liked to make pupusas from her native El Salvador. Each morning, without fail, said neighbor Jose Jesus Hernandez, she set her husband's coffee down next to him at his work station.

"She was a beautiful woman," Hernandez said.

Trejo worked hard, Hernandez said, sometimes six days a week, selling electronic equipment from her brother's store at a local swap meet.

The family had rented the modest four-bedroom house for about five years, according to neighbors.

Outside the home, leafy citrus trees cast a shadow on the overgrown front lawn where Martinez, who was described as a pious woman, often sat for hours watching neighborhood children at play.

Alvarez said he and his family had heard no unusual noises on Friday. The bodies were found Saturday morning by Trejo's 21-year-old daughter, whom authorities declined to identify.

Alvarez said he had last seen family members Thursday evening, when they were sitting on their front porch and talking. Jasmin was absorbed in reading a children's story, he remembered.

"She came out with her book," Alvarez said. "She was so eager to finish it."

Across the street, Arlene Hernandez, 8, said she and Jasmin had played together nearly every day. One of Jasmin's favorite pastimes was handball, which the children played against their garage doors. Arlene said she had often gone to the Ruiz home to play computer games.

Anyone with information about the crime was asked to call homicide detectives at (323) 890-5572.

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Times staff writers Charles Ornstein and Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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