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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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