Retrial under way in Pomona slaying

POMONA — A retrial began this week for a 24-year-old man accused of shooting a man to death to avenge his brother’s killing.

At his first trial, held in December, Joel Martin was convicted of second-degree murder for the Feb. 4, 2009 shooting death of Carlos Espinoza.

Espinoza, 22, was shot six times while waiting at a bus stop at Mission Boulevard and Buena Vista Avenue in Pomona.

While jurors in the December trial unanimously agreed that Martin was guilty of murder, they deadlocked on the issue of whether he used a firearm in the course of Espinoza’s slaying.

Prosecutors opted to again take Martin’s case to trial because the gun allegations, if found true, could lengthen Martin’s prison stay by 25 years. Second-degree murder carries a prison sentence of 15 years to life.

Prosecutors allege that Martin shot Espinoza because he believed Espinoza was friends with the men who killed his brother, Miguel Martin, about two months earlier.

According to testimony in December from a woman who was with Espinoza during the shooting, a Chevy Astro Van pulled up alongside the bus stop at about 1:30 p.m.

A man in the passenger seat of the van briefly exchanged words with Espinoza before opening fire with a handgun, the woman said.

Espinoza was shot twice in the chest, once in the back, once in the leg, and once in each arm.

Before he lost consciousness, Espinoza told authorities that his killer was a man he identified by the nickname “Guero,” whose brother had recently been killed.

Joel Martin later admitted to police that “Guero” was his nickname.

Detective Mark McCann testified today in Pomona Superior Court that based on Espinoza’s statements, Joel Martin was the primary suspect in the killing.

But after Espinoza’s death, Martin fled Pomona. His family said he moved to Mexico to care for his grandmother, McCann testified.

In March 2010, McCann learned that Martin’s brother was living in Portales, N.M. The detective testified that he had a hunch Martin might also be living there.

When McCann asked federal authorities to search for Martin, his hunch was confirmed. Martin was arrested in New Mexico and extradited to California in early April 2010.

Deputy District Attorney Bjorn Dodd said he expects to rest his case against Martin on Monday, the next day the trial is in session.

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Trial nears close for men charged in string of armed robberies

RANCHO CUCAMONGA — The prosecution rested its case today in the trial of two men charged with committing a string of armed robberies two years ago across the Inland Valley.

Jose Antonio Rivera, 36, and Cruz Rodriguez Vasquez, 25, are accused of robbing 20 businesses — from Pomona to Fontana — between June 2009 and October 2009.

The men primarily targeted mobile phone stores such as Metro PCS. Half the robberies occurred in Ontario, said Ontario police Detective Roger Planas, who testified today to conclude the prosecution’s case.

Rivera, of Ontario, and Vasquez, of El Monte, were arrested after committing a robbery in Upland on Oct. 8, 2009 when an officer saw their car in the area and realized it matched the description of the getaway car used in prior robberies, Planas said.

Both men confessed to committing several robberies in interviews with detectives following their arrest, Planas testified.

“(Vasquez) told me he’s been unemployed and he has a 20-year-old girlfriend he has a 5-year-old son with,” Planas testified. “He has to help provide for the 5-year-old boy and the 20-year-old girlfriend, and he has bills to pay.”

Jurors are expected to begin deliberating next week in West Valley Superior Court after attorneys in the case deliver closing arguments.

During the robberies, Rivera was armed with a handgun, while Vasquez acted as the getaway driver, said Deputy District Attorney Deborah Ploghaus.

The men, who met through work in Chino, stole on average about $700 from each store, with the highest yield being about $1,200, Planas said.

In addition to the 10 robberies in Ontario, Rivera and Vasquez committed robberies in Pomona, Claremont, Montclair, Upland, Rancho Cucamonga and Fontana, Ploghaus and Planas said.

The stores they robbed include Islas Tropical Fruits in Ontario, Aloha Grill in Upland, a Chevron gas station in Claremont, Red Hill gas station in Rancho Cucamonga, and a Zap Wireless store in Upland.

Rivera is charged with 28 counts of robbery and seven counts of attempted robbery. Vasquez is charged with 27 counts of robbery and eight counts of attempted robbery.

Judge dismisses lawsuit brought against Pomona by murdered woman’s relatives

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Pictured: Eileen Nicole Ponce-Orta and her daughter Alina.

LOS ANGELES — A judge today dismissed a lawsuit brought against the city of Pomona by the family of a murdered woman whose relatives discovered her body inside an abandoned van.

Relatives of Eileen Nicole Ponce-Orta discovered her body on the floor of her van on Feb. 15, 2008 after Pomona police called her husband to pick up the vehicle, which was left beside Pomona Superior Court.

As part of an earlier missing-person’s report for Ponce-Orta, her family members informed police that the van was also missing.

Joseph Gary Orta, a 37-year-old cousin of Ponce-Orta’s husband, was convicted of first-degree murder last year for Ponce-Orta’s slaying. The Azusa man was sentenced to 56 years to life in prison.

The lawsuit dismissed today was brought by the three people who discovered Ponce-Orta’s body: her husband, Nicolas Ponce; her mother, Tracy Ponce; and her brother, Enrique Ponce.

All three claim they suffered emotional distress when they found the Covina woman’s body, which was covered by sheets inside the van.

Tracy Ponce said this afternoon that the officer who found the van failed to search it before its release despite evidence of foul play. Ponce-Orta’s purse was left on the passenger seat and its contents were dumped out, Ponce said.

“All the officer had to do was get his butt off the car and look through the window,” Ponce said.

Ponce and the lawyer for the plaintiffs, Kurt E. Kananen, said they plan to appeal Judge James R. Dunn’s ruling, which was made in the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in downtown Los Angeles.

In explaining his ruling, Dunn said police officers are immune from civil liability for actions taken during missing-persons investigations, Kananen said.

“Of course we believe that his ruling was not correct, and, in more detail, we believe that he unfairly expanded the immunities for police officers for their negligence in dealing with regular citizens,” Kananen said.

Though she disagreed with the judge’s ruling, Ponce said her main concern was seeing Orta prosecuted for her daughter’s slaying.

“Honestly, we’re moving on with our lives,” she said. “My granddaughter Alina (Ponce-Orta’s daughter) is doing great. … I’m thankful we had justice in the murder case.”

CIM inmate convicted of fueling fire in riot

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Pictured: Joshua Hall after the riot.

CHINO — An inmate at the California Institution for Men has pleaded guilty to a felony for helping to set fire to a barracks in the Aug. 8, 2009 riot at the prison.

Caris Lynn McDougald, 25, pleaded guilty Friday in Chino Superior Court to a count of unlawfully causing a fire. A trial in his case was under way, with a jury seated Thursday to hear the case.

McDougald’s guilty plea was entered as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors that carries a six-year prison sentence, said Deputy District Attorney Anil Kaushal. McDougald is scheduled to be sentenced May 2.

A correctional officer testified during a preliminary hearing last year that he saw McDougald add paper and other flammable material to a fire that was set at Joshua Hall, which was destroyed in the blaze. The hall will cost about $1.66 million to replace, according to testimony.

The officer, Lee Rogers, testified that he recognized McDougald by his distinctive dreadlocks. Rogers said he saw other inmates adding material to the fire but was unable to identify them.

More than 300 inmates were injured in the riot — dubbed a “racial disturbance” in a police report — which lasted 12 hours after being sparked the evening of Aug. 8, 2009.

Former treasurer charged with embezzling from local nonprofit group

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RANCHO CUCAMONGA — The former treasurer of a local nonprofit group has been charged with embezzling about $85,000 from the organization’s bank accounts.

Deron Edward Lane, 44, is accused of stealing about 75 percent of the funds belonging to the Chaffey Communities Cultural Center, which manages the Cooper Regional History Museum in Upland and stages local events.

The group’s president, Dave Stevens, said today that Lane has since repaid the money, which he allegedly stole between May 2009 and November last year.

“(Lane) just said that he was sorry that he did that,” Stevens said. “He was about to lose his house, and so he started taking money.”

Lane, of Upland, became involved in the organization about four years ago while seeking information about his home in the 200 block of South Euclid Avenue, Stevens said.

Lane later joined the group’s board of directors, and in 2008 he took over duties as treasurer, which Stevens said is a volunteer position.

Stevens said he discovered Lane’s alleged embezzlement late last year when the organization’s liability insurer contacted him about a payment that was soon due.

Stevens said he checked the organization’s bank statements online and found the account largely depleted.

“When I first saw that I thought we were going to be closed down,” Stevens said.

The San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office charged Lane on Feb. 25 with two felonies: embezzlement by a public or private officer and grand theft.

Lane, who is free on $200,000 bail, has pleaded not guilty to the charges and is next due April 19 in West Valley Superior Court.

Lane declined to comment today when reached at his home. He referred a reporter to his attorney, Eric J. Youngquist, who did not return a call seeking comment.

According to a police report contained in Lane’s court file, Lane embezzled from the organization by issuing checks to his spouse from the group’s account.

When confronted with bank records by police, Lane said he was paid by the organization for acting as its property manager — a claim that Stevens denied.

Lane also allegedly failed to notify the organization’s board of directors of the payments in periodic updates about the group’s finances, according to the police report.

Stevens and others suspect that the money Lane repaid to the Chaffey Community Cultural Center may have come from funds he inherited from a recently deceased member of the organization.

Lola Lowe, 61, died Dec. 24 at Lane’s home, where she was receiving hospice care the last two weeks of her life.

She knew Lane through her volunteer work with the Chaffey Community Cultural Center, and grew fond of him, said Lowe’s long-term boyfriend, Blackie Taylor, who lived with Lowe in Rancho Cucamonga the last 21 years of her life.

Lowe granted Lane power of attorney and named him executor of her estate, according to Taylor and the police report. According to Taylor, Lane has since emptied two bank accounts left by Lowe.

He said one of the accounts was supposed to cover his mortgage and living expenses, and the other was left for his grandchildren to attend college.

“She gave him power of attorney to handle a bunch of things, and when she died on Christmas Eve, I guess shortly he ripped off a couple of her accounts,” Taylor said.

Taylor, who called Lane “the biggest thief in history,” said he believes Lane should be charged criminally for his handling of Lowe’s estate.

Sam Crowe, an attorney hired by the Chaffey Community Cultural Center to recover funds from Lane, said today that he doesn’t know where Lane came up with the money to repay the organization.

But in statements to police, Crowe indicated Lane’s funds may have come from an unidentified inheritance, according to the police report.

“I re-contacted Mr. Crowe,” Detective Anthony Wilson wrote in the report. “He indicated that since I had last spoken with him, suspect Lane had received monies from an inheritance and has paid the (organization) $100,000 to replace the monies he had taken.”

Drunken driver sentenced for injuring officer

RANCHO CUCAMONGA — A drunken driver was sentenced to seven years in state prison today for colliding with a police car in Montclair, injuring an officer inside, as he tried to flee a traffic stop.

Before he was sentenced, 28-year-old Seth Ruiz apologized for the Dec. 27 incident and asked the injured officer for forgiveness.

“I’m sorry for what I did,” Ruiz, of Pomona, said through a translator in West Valley Superior Court. “I know it was wrong, and I think I have to find a way to change.”

Police pulled Ruiz over at about 1:30 a.m. in the 4500 block of Kingsley Street. After initially stopping, Ruiz sped away in his 1996 Ford Explorer, reaching speeds estimated at 60 to 70 mph.

Officer Eric Rivera was standing in the street beside his patrol car, which he’d parked east of the traffic stop to keep other cars from entering the area.

In court Thursday, Rivera recalled seeing Ruiz’s headlights race toward him. He said he got into his patrol car and held the steering wheel to brace himself for the impact.

Rivera suffered a concussion and sprained his spine in the resulting collision. He said his body was thrown inside the car with such force that it bent the barrel of an assault rifle beside him.

The officer said he missed work for a month and had to undergo physical therapy before returning.

“I feel like I made a full recovery, fortunately,” Rivera said.

Ruiz’s car rolled over during the collision and he was also hospitalized. His blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.24, three times the legal limit.

After Ruiz expressed remorse for the incident today, Rivera said he forgave him. Rivera has been an officer for nearly four years, and last year he was named Montclair’s officer of the year.

As part of a plea agreement with prosecutors, Ruiz pleaded no contest last month to four felonies: assault on a police officer with a deadly weapon, DUI, vandalism, and evading a police officer.

Besides imposing the prison sentence contained in the agreement, Judge Stephan Saleson ordered Ruiz to pay about $28,500 in restitution to the city of Montclair.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has placed a hold on Ruiz, and after finishing his prison sentence he’ll likely be deported, said Deputy District Attorney Tom Colclough.

Colclough said he doesn’t know Ruiz’s immigration status.

Former music teacher pleads guilty in sexual relationship with student

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CHINO — A former music teacher at Chino Hills High School has pleaded guilty to two felonies for allegedly having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl.

Justin Clark Wallin, 31, pleaded guilty Monday in Chino Superior Court to two counts of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor.

His pleas were entered as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors that carries a sentence of a year in jail. Wallin is scheduled to be sentenced April 21.

Wallin was arrested in July after the girl’s parents discovered more than 8,000 text messages — some sexually explicit — sent by Wallin to their daughter, who was a student at Chino Hills High School.

The San Bernardino District Attorney’s Office filed a seven-count criminal complaint against Wallin in January.

In exchange for Wallin’s guilty pleas, prosecutors have agreed to drop three counts of oral copulation, one count of sexual penetration, and a misdemeanor for annoying or molesting a child.

Wallin was initially free on bail after his arrest, but he was taken back into custody Jan. 7 at his arraignment, when a judge raised his bail from $100,000 to $275,000.

Wallin remains in custody at West Valley Detention Center in Rancho Cucamonga.

Rancho Cucamonga man sentenced in public corruption case

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Photo: Investigators found more than $170,000 in cash in a floor safe in Kallas’ home.

LOS ANGELES — A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement attorney from Rancho Cucamonga was sentenced to nearly 18 years in prison Monday for taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from immigrants.

Constantine Peter Kallas, 40, an assistant chief counsel at the agency, accepted bribes in exchange for taking steps to help illegal immigrants from being deported, according to a news release from the U.S. Department of Justice.

In the course of his scheme, Kallas stole numerous immigration files, and in one instance asked a judge to dismiss removal proceedings against an illegal immigrant without authorization, according to the news release.

Kallas was arrested in June 2008 after taking a $20,000 bribe from an immigrant at San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino in Highland. The transaction was captured by casino security cameras.

In the five years before his arrest, Kallas took at least $425,000 in bribes from immigrants, according to the news release.

When Kallas’ home was subsequently searched, investigators discovered a floor safe that contained two dozen immigration files and more than $177,000 in cash.

A federal jury convicted Kallas in April on 36 felony counts, including conspiracy, bribery, fraud, tax evasion and numerous other crimes.

In addition to being sentenced to prison, Kallas was ordered by U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. to pay nearly $300,000 in restitution.

“Mr. Kallas has received one of the longest sentences ever seen in a public corruption case,” said U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr.

“Mr. Kallas took in hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes — money he obtained by exploiting his knowledge of the immigration system,” Birotte continued. “The lengthy sentence reflects the seriousness of the crimes, which were a wholesale violation of the public trust.”

One of Kallas’ methods of shielding immigrants from deportation was to submit false labor applications that listed the immigrants as employees in fictitious companies created by Kallas.

Kallas also profited through workers compensation fraud and tax evasion. He claimed “total disability” and listed his income as zero, according to the news release.

Bank records show that besides Kallas’ salary, about $950,000 was deposited in Kallas and his wife’s bank accounts since 2000, according to the news release.

Woman convicted of murder for Pomona stabbing

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WEST COVINA — A woman who fatally stabbed a perceived romantic rival two years ago at a Pomona mental-health facility has been convicted of first-degree murder.

Nicole Ann Stewart, 35, was convicted March 7 in West Covina Superior Court after a two-day trial in which five witnesses testified about the killing of Robin Ridgeway.

Ridgeway, 49, died July 23, 2009 following Stewart’s attack at Hamilton Villa, 948 S. Hamilton Blvd.

Three days after the guilty verdict, the jury found that Stewart was sane at the time of Ridgeway’s killing. Stewart is scheduled to be sentenced March 30.

According to testimony from witnesses at a preliminary hearing, Stewart killed Ridgeway because she believed Ridgeway was having an affair with her boyfriend. All three were residents of Hamilton Villa.

In the days before the incident, Stewart reportedly complained to staff members at the facility that her medication was ineffective and she feared she would hurt someone.

At about 4 p.m. the day of the incident, Stewart attacked Ridgeway in an outdoor area of the facility as Ridgeway was speaking to another resident and a psychologist.

Stewart said, “Take that,” and, “Don’t mess with my husband,” as she stabbed Ridgeway in the back with a foot-long blade, according testimony from witnesses.

Stewart remains jailed without bail at the Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood.

Accessory to Pomona killing faces three-year sentence

POMONA — A 23-year-old man has pleaded no contest to acting as an accessory to a fatal shooting in August of a 19-year-old man.

Jose Rojas Martinez entered the plea March 11 as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors that carries a three-year prison sentence. He’s scheduled to be sentenced April 13 in Pomona Superior Court.

Martinez allegedly served as the driver for two people who gunned down Ramiro Chavez on Aug. 14 in the 500 block of Weber Street in Pomona.

According to testimony during an October preliminary hearing, two gunmen opened fire on Chavez on a sidewalk at about 12:45 a.m. after Chavez and one of the gunmen identified themselves as members of rival gangs.

The alleged gunmen — Vincent Lopez, 17, and Miguel Ayala, 20 — remain jailed awaiting trial for murder.

A woman who was with Chavez shortly before the shooting testified that a blue Chevy Astro Van pulled up alongside them, and Chavez told her to leave.

The woman said she walked away and was about two houses down the block when she heard gunfire.

“As soon as I heard the first gunshots, I turned around towards them,” the woman said. “I (saw Chavez) falling on his knees. As soon soon as he fell completely facing the left-hand side, that’s when the other — the other guy came up and ran up to him and shot him three more times.”

Police dispatchers broadcast the description of the van shortly after the shooting, and an officer on patrol saw the gunmen’s van nearby on Holt Avenue. Martinez and the two alleged gunmen were arrested.

After they were in custody, Martinez and Ayala confessed to their roles in the slaying to detectives. They said Lopez is a member of a La Puente-area gang, and after a night of drinking said he wanted to “put in work” for his gang.

The men bought beer at a convenience store, and Lopez told Martinez where to turn as Martinez drove the van, which belonged to his mother, according to testimony from Detective Tim Aguirre.

When the men stopped on Weber Street, Lopez approached Chavez and asked him if was affiliated with a gang. Chavez said he was a member of a small “party crew,” and Lopez opened fire, shooting Chavez about three times, Aguirre testified.

He then told Ayala to “finish him off,” and Ayala shot Chavez about three more times, Aguirre testified.

Ayala remains jailed in lieu of $2 million bail at the North County Correctional Facility in Castaic. He and Lopez are next due in court March 29 for a trial readiness hearing.