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The State

A homicide case takes a back seat to a theft ring

August 15, 2007|Scott Glover | Times Staff Writer

As she peered out the window of her second-story apartment, Magallanes Delgado first thought the liquid running down the driveway from her neighbor Mendoza's BMW was red paint. Then she saw a young man slouched, motionless, in the driver's seat, so she called police.

The liquid turned out be blood, and there was lots of it. It was coming from the dead body of a young man, later identified as Mendoza.

He had been stabbed in the face, neck, chest, back and thigh. Police didn't have much to go on. A canvas of the neighborhood turned up nothing. No one who knew Mendoza could think of any reason someone would want to kill him.

They found a receipt indicating Mendoza had been to a Jack in the Box in Bell some time before he died, so detectives checked with police there. They were told about the disturbance at Las Playas and the security guard's 911 call. The detectives interviewed Quevedo and showed him photos of Mendoza and his car, both of which he identified as having been involved in the ruckus a night earlier.

Detectives also seized videotapes from security cameras at the restaurant. But attempts to identify the assailants were futile. In April 2001, four months after Mendoza was killed, the trail went cold. The investigation was suspended.


Mayhem is recounted

After he was busted in a federal drug sting in San Diego in June 2001, Alvin Moon, 25, a panicked community college student, couldn't confess fast enough. Within hours of being arrested, Moon admitted involvement in buying 10 kilos of cocaine from undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agents.

But that wasn't all.

As stunned federal investigators listened, Moon spun an outrageous tale about a corrupt Los Angeles cop running a home-invasion style robbery ring in which he and more than a dozen other people ripped off drug dealers and dealt drug themselves. Skeptical at first, investigators have since proved Moon's allegation and obtained 12 convictions. But Moon wanted to talk about more than the robberies. There had been an incident at a restaurant in Bell, he said. Moon said he was there with Palomares and his cousins, the Loaizas, and another friend when they were confronted by someone in the parking lot.

As the man drove away, "there was an exchange of words," and Palomares told Moon, who was driving that night, "to go after him."

So Moon, Palomares, the Loaizas and Manuel Hernandez piled into Moon's black SUV -- a Toyota 4Runner -- and gave chase. They followed the car until it stopped in a driveway. Moon pulled in behind, blocking its exit.

Moon said Gabriel Loaiza got out and -- cop-like -- pointed a gun and metal Maglite flashlight at the driver.

Moon said Gabriel Loaiza began swinging the metal flashlight into the open door of the car, striking the man in the face. Palomares, a martial arts enthusiast, then delivered three karate-style blows to the victim's head and chest.

As Palomares walked back toward the SUV, Oscar Loaiza leaned into the man's car and continued the assault. At first, Moon said, he thought Oscar had just been hitting the man. But when he got back to the vehicle, he said he'd been stabbing him. His hands and knife were covered in blood. He used alcohol swabs from a first-aid kit Moon kept in the 4Runner to wipe them.

Moon said Gabriel Loaiza drove by the victim's residence the next morning and saw police officers and crime scene tape.

Occasionally, he said, Oscar Loaiza would brag, "I whacked that guy."

Unbeknown to Moon, another member of the crew arrested in San Diego that day, Jose Garcia, had given authorities "a similar version of what had occurred," but it was less detailed because Garcia hadn't been at Las Playas that night.


Case is in limbo

It didn't take long for police to match Moon's account with the killing of Erick Mendoza. Investigators' first call was to Bell police.

Officials there, aware of the unsolved murder in nearby Huntington Park, referred them to the detectives handling the case.

They interviewed Moon, along with Deputy Dist. Atty. Doug Sortino of the district attorney's Major Crimes Unit.

They seized Moon's SUV to look for traces of Mendoza's blood. They raided residences linked to the Loaizas, looking for the murder weapon.

They found and interviewed Hernandez, who, along with Moon, had stayed inside the 4Runner during the attack.

In the aftermath of the San Diego arrest, the FBI took control of the evidence gathered by Huntington Park police because the U.S. attorney's office "wanted to examine Mendoza's murder to see if it could be charged as part of a criminal enterprise."

When federal authorities decided some months later that it did not fit in their conspiracy case, the evidence was returned to the police. The case has been in limbo ever since, to the frustration of Mendoza's mother and friends.

The closest it has come to a courtroom is the dispute that has arisen in connection with the upcoming trial of William and Joseph Ferguson.

The brothers -- William, a former LAPD officer, and Joseph, a Long Beach officer -- are accused of being members of the robbery crew run by Palomares.

Their lawyers want to be able to question Palomares, Moon and Gabriel Loaiza about their alleged roles in the slaying and to probe whether they've been made any promises by the government.

Joseph Ferguson's attorney, Vicki Podberesky, said the issue wasn't whether the men are guilty of an uncharged crime but whether they may be motivated to help the government's case if they believe doing so may help them avoid being charged.

Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School and a former federal prosecutor, said she saw merit in the argument.

"The fact that nothing has happened to these guys for all these years at least creates the suggestion that the prosecution has been doing them a favor," Levenson said. "The defense ought to be able to at least explore that."


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