WEST COVINA >> A La Puente woman who befriended an elderly West Covina man, stabbed him to death and set the house ablaze pleaded “no contest” to murder and arson charges Thursday, authorities said.
Brenda Armstrong, 40, is expected to be sentenced to 30 years to life in state prison when she returns to the Pomona branch of Los Angeles County Superior Court for sentencing on Dec. 14, Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office spokesman Ricardo Santiago said.
She was originally accused of the special circumstance of murder during the coarse of a burglary, but the special circumstance allegation was dismissed under the negotiated plea arrangement, Deputy District Attorney Tony Cho of the D.A.’s Elder Abuse Section said. If convicted as originally charged, Armstrong could have faced life in prison without the possibility of parole. Prosecutors previously decided not to seek the death penalty in the case.
Ralph Simonian, 82, was found dead on Nov. 15, 2012, inside his burning home in the 900 block of Holiday Drive, according to prosecutors and Los Angeles County sheriff’s investigators, who assisted West Covina police in the investigation.
“His house had been set on fire and he had been stabbed multiple times,” district attorney’s officials said in a written statement.
After a lengthy investigation, detectives determined Simonian, who lived alone at his home, had been slain by Armstrong during a burglary at his home, Sgt. Robert Gray of the Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau said at the time.
She had befriended Simonian while working at J.B. Burgers in La Puente, where Simonian was a regular customer, officials said.
On the day of the slaying, a neighbor’s security camera captured images of a car Armstrong had borrowed arriving on the victim’s street, detectives and prosecutors said. Cell phone data also linked Armstrong to the crime scene.
Detectives first arrested Armstrong in connection with the slaying about two months after it occurred. But prosecutors declined to file charges, citing insufficient evidence. Armstrong promptly moved to Delaware.
Detectives continued gathering evidence and building their case. Prosecutors ultimately filed a murder charge and issued an arrest warrant for Armstrong, who was taken into custody in Delaware during a traffic stop on Sept. 13, 2013.
Deputies found no signs of forced entry at Simonian’s home. Detectives learned she had visited the victim on several occasions, Gray said.
There were no signs of forced entry at Simonian’s home, the sergeant said. The fire, which began in the master bedroom where Simonian was fatally stabbed, was believed to have been set in order to destroy evidence.
The entire incident lasted about 45 minutes, Cho said.
Many of the details surrounding the slaying remain a mystery, as there were no witnesses, and Armstrong has not detailed the crime.
Officials said theft was believed to be the motive in the murder, but it was unclear what was stolen.
A small safe was discovered missing from Simonian’s home following the slaying and fire, Gray said.
The safe has never been recovered.
“We don’t know what was in the safe,” Cho said.
Absent of eye witnesses or DNA evidence, the case was largely “circumstantial,” Cho said.
He praised the tenacity of homicide detectives for Thursday’s conviction.
“I would jut credit with the detectives with putting together all the circumstantial evidence in the case,” Cho said.
PHOTO by Keith Birmingham