South El Monte mayor admits to 7-year bribery scheme

SOUTH EL MONTE >> South El Monte Mayor Luis Aguinaga agreed to plead guilty to a federal bribery charge Thursday after being charged with regularly collecting cash payments from a city contractor over the course of seven years, officials said.
In his plea agreement, the mayor admitted to taking bribes every two to three weeks from a contractor who conducted business with the city, U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman Thom Mrozek said in a written statement.
“The payments were rewards in connection with the approval of city contracts for the contractor,” Mrozek said.
The bribes, which were initially $500 at a time but later increased to $1,000, were paid between 2005 and September of 2012, prosecutors allege. Under the plea agreement, Aguinaga admitted taking at least $45,000 in bribes.
“This long-running corruption scheme compromised the effective governance of South El Monte,” U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker said. “Corruption like Mr. Aguinaga’s is a threat to government institutions and undermines the public’s trust in all government officials. The residents of South El Monte deserve better.”
The contractor, identified in court documents as a “confidential witness,” left the bribe money for Aguinaga by placing cash in envelopes dropped in a bathroom at South El monte City Hall, or left inside the passenger-side pocket of a car, Mrozek said.
One meeting between Aguinaga and the confidential informant was monitored by undercover FBI agents, he said.
“Defendant was nervous about meeting with CW because Cudahy city officials, including the mayor, had recently been arrested and charged with accepting bribes,” according to the plea agreement. “While defendant was speaking with CW, defendant showed CW his cell phone on which he had written ‘don’t talk’ or ‘don’t saying anything,’ and defendant asked CW several times to accompany him to the bathroom. Once they went to the bathroom, CW left an envelope with $2,000 cash on the counter near the sink. Defendant took the envelope containing the money and kept at least $1,000 for himself.”
In some cases, such as the FBI-monitored meeting, Aguinaga took some of the money to give to another “City public official” who was not identified in court documents.
“Mr. Aguinaga abdicated his civic duty when he made decisions for the city based on bribes he demanded, instead of for the good of the people he was elected to serve. The FBI will not tolerate corruption by city officials, nor should the residents of South El Monte,” according to Deirdre Fike, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office.
He is scheduled to appear in federal court in Los Angeles Aug. 10 for an arraignment hearing, officials said.
A conviction for bribery carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in federal prison.

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CHP chase turns into rescue after fiery crash in Baldwin Park


BALDWIN PARK >> A California Highway Patrol pursuit instantly turned into a rescue operation Wednesday after a fleeing stolen SUV with three people inside crashed and burst into flames in Baldwin Park, authorities said.
All three occupants of the car suffered significant injuries but were expected to survive following the crash, which took place shortly after 2:20 p.m. at Garvey Avenue and Big Dalton Avenue, CHP Officer Rodrigo Jimenez said.
Officers were chasing a stolen Toyota RAV4 when it crashed and burst into flames, he said. The same officers then pulled the driver and two passengers from the burning wreckage.
Officers were chasing a stolen Toyota RAV4 when it crashed and burst into flames,” he said.
“What these guys did was heroic,” Jimenez said.
Driver Ruben Cabrera Jr., 35, of Montebello was booked on suspicion of auto theft, felony evading of police causing great bodily injury and possession of methamphetamine. He was also already being sought for alleged parole violations.
Cabrera suffered injuries including broken ribs in the crash, Jimenez said. He was treated for his injuries before being booking into jail.
A 27-year-old woman who was riding as a rear passenger suffered a mostly-severed arm, the officer said. Surgeons had reattached the arm Thursday, however the ultimate prognosis was unclear.
A 16-year-old girl who was two to three months pregnant and riding as a front passenger in the SUV suffered injuries including a broken wrist, Jimenez said.
Officers first spotted the Toyota RAV4 speeding in the fast lane of the westbound 10 Freeway near Puente Avenue, Jimenez said. The SUV suddenly exited the freeway at Fransicquito Avenue and blew through a stop sign at Garvey and Vineland avenues.
Officers tried to pull the SUV over, but the driver sped off, initiating a chase, he said.
But the driver lost control of the vehicle as it rounded a bend where Garvey Avenue becomes Big Dalton Avenue, striking several trees and shearing a fire hydrant, Jimenez said.
The SUV’s gas tank ruptured and the RAV4 burst into flames, he said.
The pursuing officers suddenly became rescuers as they freed the three trapped occupants from the burning car, Jimenez said.
The officers pulled the driver from the SUV, he said. “That’s when they heard screaming from inside the car. The fire started growing. They saw that there was a female passenger in the right rear.”
Officer managed to pull out the rear passenger and discovered the 16-year-old passenger also trapped in the front passenger seat.
As the fire continued to grow larger, the officers cut the seat belt of the third and final occupant and freed her from the flaming wreck, Jimenez said.
According to Los Angeles County booking records, Cabrera was being held without bail at the Inmate Reception Center in Los Angeles pending his initial court appearance, scheduled Friday in West Covina Superior Court.

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Covina grandmother missing for two months after mysterious disappearance

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COVINA >> Sheriff’s detectives and worried family members sought the public’s help Thursday in finding a Covina grandmother who disappeared more than two months ago under suspicious circumstances.
Tamara “Tammy” Rummel, 49, was last seen on May 20 on surveillance camera, accompanied by an unidentified man, using a an ATM machine in Covina on the afternoon of May 20, according to Deputy Lilian Peck of the Los Angeles County sheriff’s Information Bureau.
0729_SGT_NWS_SGT-L-COVINA-MISSING-sketchJust before arriving at the Covina bank, Rummel is believed to have left her home in the unincorporated county area of Covina, “in an unfamiliar sports-utility vehicle with an unknown person(s),” Peck said in a written statement.
“Also suspicious, Tamara’s cell phone activity ended hours after the ATM transaction, and she has not been seen or heard from since,” Peck said. “Detectives would like to learn the identity of the man seen with Tamara at the bank, who may offer critical information in locating her.”
Detectives released bank surveillance camera photos of Rummel and the unidentified man in hopes of generating leads. Authorities had yet to determine whether the man seen in the bank surveillance camera images is the same who left Rummel’s home with her earlier in the day.
Rummel is a mother of four grown children and a “doting grandmother” of six, Peck said. She retired from a position as media director with a resource center for parent’s with special needs children about a decade ago.
“She is a responsible person who enjoyed home ownership, and interacting with friends and family,” Peck said. “Tamara’s family said her disappearance and complete lack of communication since Friday, May 20, 2016, is highly uncharacteristic and has caused them great worry for her welfare.”
0729_SGT_NWS_SGT-L-COVINA-MISSING-conferenceRummel is described as white, 5 feet 3 inches tall and 145 pounds. She has light brown hair and blue eyes.
Investigators also released a composite sketch of the man who accompanied Rummel to the ATM.
The person of interest pictured with her in the bank surveillance camera photos wore a white T-shirt and a baseball cap with a logo, possible a “B,” on the front.
Anyone with information is asked to contact Sergeant Ken Perry or Sgt. Dan McElderry of the sheriff’s Homicide Bureau’s missing persons unit at 323-890-5500.
Tips may also be submitted anonymously to L.A. Regional Crime Stoppers at 800-222-8477.

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PHOTOS courtesy of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

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Two gunmen sought in Rowland Heights home-invasion robbery


ROWLAND HEIGHTS >> Two men with handguns tied up a man and woman during a home-invasion robbery in Rowland Heights late Wednesday, authorities said.
The crime unfolded about 9 p.m. in the 19200 block of Addis Street, Los Angeles County sheriff’s Lt. John Saleeby said.
A man and woman in their 20s answered a knock at their front door when the gunmen forced their way in, the lieutenant said.
Both robbers were armed with handguns as they tied up the two victims, he said.
The robbers stole a bag containing an undetermined amount of cash, as well as other items from the home, Saleeby said.
Sheriff’s officials described the gunmen as two Asian men wearing all black clothing.
Sheriff’s radio traffic from the scene further described one of the robbers as being in his early-20s, about 6 feet tall and 180 pounds, wearing a black silk jacket. The second robber was described as 5 feet 5 inches tall and 160 pounds, wearing a white T-shirt. No getaway car was seen.
The victims suffered no significant injuries, Saleeby said.
Anyone with information can reach the sheriff’s Walnut-Diamond Bar Station at 909-595-2264. Tips may also be submitted anonymously to L.A. Regional Crime Stoppers at 800-222-8477.

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Fireball streaks across SoCal sky


SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA >> A fireball seen streaking slowly across the northern sky before breaking into two pieces and vanishing late Wednesday left residents throughout Southern California and beyond wondering what they had just witnessed.
The unidentified object was seen, and in some cases, video-recorded, in the Southland skies shortly after 9:30 p.m.
Reports of the strange celestial activity flooded into Los Angeles County law enforcement agencies, officials said.
The National Weather Service in Reno reported witness sighting in their jurisdiction.
Astronomer Phil Plait took to Twitter to share his thoughts. He said the object was also reported in Utah and Colorado.
“#Meteor over western US almost definitely human space debris like a rocket booster or the like. Slow moving and broke apart,” tweeted the scientist, known as “The Bad Astronomer.”
At the sheriff’s Industry Station, in the central San Gabriel Valley, deputies received numerous calls from people who believed they’d just witnesses an aircraft breaking apart mid-air.
“Our helicopter crew and a pair of deputies on patrol reported they actually witnessed it also and it appeared to be a meteorite shower breaking up in the atmosphere,” sheriff’s Lt. John Gannon said in an email. “It must have been quite a show for a moment, because it was very noticeable and bright within the area of the valley between 605 and 57, 60 and 210 (freeways).”
There was no indication an aircraft had crashed, Gannon said.
It appears to have been just a natural phenomenon,” the lieutenant said. “We are in contact with LAX and local aviation officials and verifying no plane is unaccounted for, just to be sure.”

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Man, three women arrested in Pomona prostitution sting

POMONA >> Police arrested three alleged prostitutes and one alleged facilitator to prostitution during a sting in Pomona on Tuesday afternoon, officials said.
The Pomona Police Department’s Major Crimes Task Force, along with Pomona police detectives, conducted the operation along the city’s East Holt corridor, “which is an area known for prostitution related activity,” Pomona police Sgt. Brian Hagerty said in a written statement.
Both uniformed and undercover officers took part, ultimately arresting three women on suspicion of prostitution, the sergeant said.
Arrested were Terrill Gayden, 32, of Fontana, on suspicion of aiding or supervising prostitution, as well as LaWana Roberson, 21, of Fontana, Porcha Chavez, 24, of Lancaster and Amy Hunt, 42, of Pomona, on suspicion of loitering with intent to commit prostitution, according to police and Los Angeles County booking records.
“The Pomona Police Department takes a proactive approach in improving the quality of life issues by deterring prostitution and human trafficking in the City of Pomona,” Hagerty said. “These types of operations serve as an opportunity for victims of Human Trafficking to speak with officers about the dangers of this lifestyle and provide advocates the opportunity to relocate them to safe locations. Similar operations are scheduled to take place in the near future.”
According to booking records, Gayden and Hunt were released from custody pending their initial court appearances. Chavez and Roberson, who each had pre-existing criminal cases, were being held in lieu of $52,000 and $77,000 bail, respectively.
Anyone with tips regarding prostitution-related activity is asked to contact Pomona police at 909-620-2085. Tips may also be submitted anonymously to L.A. Regional Crime Stoppers at 800-222-8477.

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Officials close portion of Angeles National Forest affected by Sand fire near Santa Clarita

Sandfire Burn map

ANGELES NATIONAL FOREST >> The Angeles National Forest Supervisor issued an order Wednesday shutting down public access to the burn area of the Sand fire, which has scorched 60 square miles of the western edge of the Angeles National Forest near Santa Clarita since igniting Friday afternoon.
The closure of access to the Sand fire burn area, including all roads and trails, was necessary to protect both public safety and public resources, according to U.S. Forest Supervisor Jeff Vail. The fire was 40 percent contained Wednesday after scorching more than 38,000 acres of brush, destroying at least 18 homes and leaving one made dead.
“The Sand fire has been a fast-growing fire and weather conditions are such that the fire has potential to continue to grow,” Vail said in a written statement. “In addition, there is limited road access to the area, creating a potential for visitors to become trapped.”
National Forest System road and trails within the burn area will also be closed.
The temporary emergency closure order, titled Order No. 01-16-05, is to take effect immediately and is scheduled to last until the Sand fire is declared extinguished.
Violations of the order can be punished by fines of up to $5,000 for an individual, and $10,000 for an organization, along with imprisonment for up to six months.
Exempt from the order are people with a U.S. Forest Service permit specifically authorizing otherwise prohibited lands, roads or trails; owners or lessees of land in the burn area, “to the to the extent necessary to access their land;” residents in the Sand fire burn area, “to the extent necessary to access their residences;” federal, state or local officers and members of organized rescue or firefighting groups in the performance of their duties, according to the order.
The order is in addition to existing prohibitions within the Angeles National Forest.
In discussing the closure with partnering law enforcement agencies, firefighters and others taking part in the effort, “No opposition or issues were identified,” Vail said.
More than 2,900 firefighters continued battling the Sand fire Wednesday.
“The priority for today’s crews is the uncontained east side of the fire,” U.S. Forest Service officials said in a written statement.
“Hotshot crews and firefighters using mechanized equipment, such as dozers, will construct indirect line and direct line where it is safe to do so in the steep terrain of the Pacoima Canyon east of the Magic Mountain Wilderness.”
“Firefighters are providing structure defense to the historic North Fork Saddle Station and to residences in affected communities,” the statement continued.
As containment lines continued to grow and strengthen, firefighters were gradually being released from the incident, either to return to their home bases or to help with other wildfires, officials said.
Firefighters faced another day of triple-digit temperatures and low relative humidity levels, though predicted fire activity Wednesday was “light to moderate,” according to the USFS.
Residents were reminded not to be alarmed if they see plumes of smoke emanating from the burn area.
“The presence of a smoke column does not necessarily mean the fire is growing,” the USFS statement said. “Interior islands of green vegetation within the fire’s perimeter might burn, creating smoke that could be visible from surrounding communities.”

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Man jailed following Alhambra pharmacy robbery


ALHAMBRA >> Police arrested a Norwalk man after he robbed a grocery store pharmacy of painkillers Sunday, officials said.
Albert Eloy Keil, 23, was booked on suspicion of robbery and burglary shortly after the crime, which took place about noon inside an Albertsons store, 2400 W. Commonwealth Ave., according to Alhambra police officials and Los Angeles County booking records.
Keil verbally threatened employees at the pharmacy before hopping over the counter and helping himself to about $900 worth of codeine pills, Alhambra police Sgt. Ruben Soriano said.
But store security guards immediately captured the robber, who was not armed, and held him until police arrived, the sergeant said.
Keil was believed to have been accompanied by an accomplice who acted as a lookout, Soriano said. The second suspect, described only as male, was not found Saturday.
Keil was being held in lieu of $120,000 bail pending an arraignment hearing, scheduled Wednesday in Alhambra Superior Court, records show.

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UPDATED: Animals large and small evacuated from Sand fire burn area; Lions, tigers among the displaced

WAYSTATION

SANTA CLARITA >> As the Sand fire continued scorching through brush in Santa Clarita with “freight train” force, the flames and smoke not only sent hundreds of human residents scattering to seek safety, but also forced the evacuations of a large number of pets and large animals, from horses to grizzly bears.
In addition to the many horses that had to be evacuated from equestrian neighborhoods  as a result of the fire Saturday, and continuing Sunday, the denizens of the Wildlife Waystation along Little Tujunga Canyon Road were also evacuated from their forest home Saturday in advance of the approaching flames, Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials said.
Evacuated residents’ large animals such as horses were first being accepted at the Hanson Dam. But after that location reached capacity, officials set up a second facility to accept evacuated large animals at Pierce College, 6201 Winnetka Ave. in Woodland Hills.
The wide array of animals great and small housed at the wildlife sanctuary ranges from birds and hedgehogs to alligators, lions, wolves, a grizzly bear and even a lion-tiger hybrid known as a Liger.
Though the animal sanctuary was not out of harms way Sunday afternoon, “We’re a whole lot less concerned than 14 hours ago, 18 hours ago,” Wildlife Waystation spokesman Jerry Brown said.
A breeze was pushing the fire toward the north, away from the Wildlife Waystation, on Sunday afternoon, but toward the communities of Acton and Agua Dulce.
The Sand fire, which ignited Friday afternoon, has since scorched more than 22,000 acres, or 34 square miles, and destroyed 18 homes, damaging one more. Firefighters discovered a man’s body inside a burned car in the evacuation area in the 26700 block of Iron Canyon road, within the evacuation zone, late Saturday, according to Los Angeles County sheriff’s Deputy Juanita Navarro Suarez. The man’s identity and cause of death were yet to be determined.
The wildfire grew in size overnight, storming over a canyon ridge, “like freight train,” Los Angeles County Fire Department Deputy Chief John Tripp said Sunday morning.
Wildlife Waystation staff and volunteers evacuated more than 70 percent of the more than 400 wild animals from the sanctuary by Saturday night, Brown said. Small animals and birds, which are more susceptible to respiratory problems due to smoke, were evacuated first. Large animals such as lions and tigers were also evacuated, though some remained at the Wildlife Waystation Sunday.
All the animals were safe and accounted for, Brown said.
The displaced exotic animals were taken in by friendly area colleagues with appropriate facilities.
After 40 years in operation, the Wildlife Waystation has made quite a few friends, he said.
“Animal people take care of animal people.”
More people than could be used showed up to try and help evacuate the threatened animals as the fire approached on Saturday, Brown said.
“There was a tremendous turnout, a tremendous number of people coming up with trucks, trailers and animal carriers,” he said.
He thanked the community for their support.
“People love to help, and people love to help the waystation,” he said.
And the need for assistance will remain even after the flames of the Sand fire are long extinguished, Brown said.
“This was an expensive operation. The Wildlife Waystation is a charity,” he said.
In addition to the expense of the fire response, the facility also needs to continue caring for the animals 24 hours a day.
“It’s an expensive proposition under normal circumstances,” Brown said.
To learn more about the Wildlife Waystation and its animals, or to make a donation, visit www.wildlifewaystation.org.
Additionally, the Sun Valley-based Reptacular Animals petting zoo was forced to evacuate it’s more than 500 animals from the zoo’s Angeles National Forest Ranch.
“All our animals are evacuated to various residential places that aren’t setup for short term care of these animals,” Reptacular representatives said in a written statement. “Mandatory evacuations are still in full effect. We are not allowed to the return to the ranch for supplies.”
Zoo staff reached out to the community for supplies to help care for the animals until they are able to return home.
“We are currently just asking for donations of veggies, greens, animal shavings/Carefresh, paper towels, food for bunnies/g pigs/chickens/ducks, newspaper, bird food, animal carriers to help keep the animals situated for now as all of our materials had to be left behind. We are managing. But any help is appreciated.
We are currently just asking for donations of Veggies, greens, animal shavings/care fresh, paper towels, food for bunnies/goats/pigs/chickens/ducks, newspaper, bird food (and) animal carriers to help keep the animals situated for now as all of our materials had to be left behind,” according to the statement. “We are managing. But any help is appreciated.”
A Paypal account been established to help Reptacular Animals at www.paypal.me/Reptacular. For more information on Reptacular Animals, visit www.reptacularanimals.com.

PHOTO: Animal handlers try to capture a pair of wolves at the Wildlife Waystation so that they can be evacuated. Tujunga, CA. July 23, 2016. (Photo by John McCoy/So Cal News Group)

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UPDATED: Burned body discovered in wake of Sand fire in Santa Clarita


SANTA CLARITA >> Homicide detectives are investigating the death of a man whose body was discovered late Saturday inside a car charred by the raging Sand fire in Santa Clarita, which has consumed more than 22,000 acres and 18 homes, authorities said Sunday.
The body, described only as that of a man, was discovered about 7:20 p.m. in the 26700 block of Iron Canyon Road, Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials said.
“Firefighters battling the Sand fire discovered the remains of an unknown person inside a burned small compact sedan that was parked in the driveway of a residence,” Deputy Juanita Navarro-Suarez of the sheriff’s Information Bureau said in a written statement. “At this time, there is no indication that the death was a criminal event.”
Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner’s investigators were working to determine the identity of the victim, as well as his cause of death.
The Sand fire ignited Friday afternoon near the 14 Freeway and Sand Canyon Road, according to the U.S. Forest Service, which was working to battle the flames in unified command with the Los Angeles County Fire Department.
Eighteen homes were destroyed by the fire, and another was damaged, authorities announced Sunday morning.
“Residents in Sand Canyon and Placenta Canyon should remain vigilant. Residents in Soledad Canyon going into Agua Dulce and Acton should remain on high alert,” USFS officials said in a statement.
An estimated 1,500 homes and 100 commercial structures were threatened by the fire, with tens of thousands more potentially in harms way, depending on the fire’s behavior in the coming hours and days.
Hundreds of homes remained under evacuation orders.
Officials initially established an evacuation center at Golden Valley High School, but moved it to Hart High School, 24825 Newhall Ave., Saturday night, sheriff’s officials said. Another evacuation center was established at the Lakeview Terrace Recreation Center, 11075 Foothill Blvd. in Lakeview Terrace.
More than 1,600 firefighters were fighting the Sand fire Sunday, using 122 engines, 39 hand crews, 8 bulldozers and 15 helicopters, according to the USFS. It was 10 percent contained.
The cause of the fire remains under investigation.

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