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Mystery envelops a home in Lennox where bodies were buried

Veteran L.A. County sheriff's investigators are shocked by the discovery of two buried bodies, the arrest of two suspects and an arson fire at a rundown home piled with junk.

February 22, 2011|By Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times

The homicide detectives who had swarmed this charred Lennox home last week were gone by Monday, replaced by insurance assessors.

The only sign that police were investigating a chilling series of crimes here was a discarded piece of yellow police tape, sitting at the bottom of a deep hole carved into the mud in a backyard of weeds and junk.

"Kinda small to fit a dead guy, huh?" said one assessor, peering in. "Maybe they buried the woman here."

The hole, and another like it nearby, are where authorities found two decomposing bodies last week. The discovery was part of a bizarre chain of events — including an arson fire at the home and claims of hostage-taking — that has shocked even the more seasoned investigators in the L.A. County Sheriff's Department.

The probe began in December, when James Stein, whose family is believed to own the house, went missing. The 53-year-old's mother hadn't heard from him, grew worried and alerted police. A missing-persons search was launched. Sheriff's investigators stopped at the house and talked to the man's wife, Gabriela Stein. About two weeks later, she too went missing.

But the couple's disappearance went largely unnoticed in the 4800 block of 112th Street. Neighbors on the residential stretch said that the home was a drug den and that the couple had few friends. The woman rarely left, and her husband would only be seen when he paced the block, talking to himself.

The trail grew cold until earlier this month, when a man approached authorities with a bizarre tale. He said a couple renting a room from the Steins asked him to help move some furniture, said Lt. Don Slawson of the sheriff's homicide division. After he helped move some large items, the couple asked to borrow his truck.

"We need to move some bodies," the couple said, according to Slawson.

When the man refused, the couple tied him up, authorities said, and took his truck before he could break free and alert police. The station detective who took the man's account recognized the address as that of the Steins and notified homicide detectives.

On Feb. 14, Jenny Salazar, one of the two renters, was found at the home and arrested on suspicion of taking the truck with her boyfriend. The 22-year-old told deputies that there was a body buried in the back of the house, Slawson said. Coroner's officials started to dig the next day and found James Stein's body.

Later that week, detectives found Salazar's boyfriend, Marcos Lomeli, 26, at a Pico Rivera motel. With deputies outside, Lomeli called 911 and told the dispatcher he was being held hostage. But when deputies entered his motel room, they found him alone. Authorities suspect he may have been under the influence of drugs and hallucinating.

That night, with both suspects in custody, the house mysteriously caught fire. Authorities suspect arson, but they don't know who's to blame. Slawson speculated that the fire could have been started by a neighbor fed up with the eyesore or a local gang involved in drug sales.

Over the weekend, new information led authorities back to the house, where they discovered a second body, which was identified Monday as that of Stein's wife, Gabriela.

Lomeli was also arrested on suspicion of carjacking. Authorities suspect both Lomeli and Salazar were involved in the Steins' deaths. Though Gabriele Stein went missing after her husband, authorities said there's no evidence to indicate she had any involvement in her husband's killing.

Belongings could be seen Monday piled outside the weathered green home with a charred roof. The junk looked as if it had been gathering for decades. Fruit flies buzzed over a pile of roller blades, a twisted child's bicycle wheel and a broken down dog house. Dry weeds poked through dozens of mix CDs, labeled with hearts and sweet messages, including "I Love Kailee Boo."

robert.faturechi@latimes.com

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