Hacienda Heights man gets 30-months in prison for father-son tax return scheme

LOS ANGELES >> A Hacienda Heights man began serving a two-and-a-half-year prison term after he was sentenced for his role in a scheme that netted more than $2.6 million in bogus tax returns using stolen identities, authorities said.
Heber Cotton, 40, pleaded guilty late last year to a count of conspiracy to defraud the federal government by obtaining the payment of fraudulent tax refunds, U.S. Department of Justice spokesman Thom Mrozek said in a written statement. U.S. District Judge Michael W. Firzgerald handed down the 30-month prison term Monday in federal court in Los Angeles.
Cotton was additionally ordered to pay $725,000 in restitution.
His father and co-conspirator, 64-year-old Adel Cotton, pleaded guilty to the same charge in 2012 and has since been sentenced to 4 years and three months in federal prison, officials said.
“This father and son pair prolifically defrauded the government and hundreds of taxpayers, earning them the significant sentences imposed by the court,” according to United States Attorney for the Central District of California Eileen M. Decker.
From December of 2008 to March of 2010, “the Cottons caused at least 275 fraudulent income tax returns to be filed with the IRS,” Mrozek said. “Those fraudulent returns sought income tax refunds totaling more than $2.6 million.”
The father and son used the names and social security numbers of victims without their knowledge to fill out fraudulent tax returns, officials said. They instructed the refund checks to be sent to addressed they controlled.
Heber Cotton admitted in court documents that he gave stolen identity information to a co-conspirator, who worked as a bank manager, who opened bank accounts with the fraudulently obtained funds, in exchange for a 20 percent cut of each refund check.
The bank manager, identified in court documents as Michael Rodriguez, managed a U.S. Bank branch inside a Tustin supermarket, Mrozek said.
He has since pleaded guilty to charges in connection with the scheme and is awaiting sentencing.
“These unscrupulous defendants, a father and son team, thought they had figured out a clever scheme to thwart the IRS and steal from American taxpayers,” IRS Criminal Investigation’s Acting Special Agent in Charge Anthony J. Orlando added. “IRS CI has made investigating refund fraud and identity theft a top priority and we will vigorously pursue those who undermine the integrity of the U.S. tax system.”

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UPDATED: Los Angeles woman killed in 60 Freeway crash in Hacienda Heights


HACIENDA HEIGHTS >> A Los Angeles woman died early Thursday after her car slammed into the back of a big rig on the 60 Freeway in Hacienda Heights, authorities said.
Kenoa Stewart, 36, was killed in the crash, according to Ed Winter, assistant chief of operations at the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner.
The collision took place at 4:11 a.m. on the eastbound 60 Freeway, just east of Seventh Avenue, Officer Jason Steward of the California Highway Patrol’s Santa Fe Springs-area office said.
The woman, later identified as Stewart, was driving a 2002 Saturn L100 east in the No. 3 lane just prior to the fatal collision, he said. A 2009 Volvo big rig was traveling directly in front of her.
“For reasons still under investigation, the driver of the Saturn collided into the right rear of a semi truck,” Steward said.
“The Saturn traveled out-of-control and became wedged underneath the right rear of the semi-trailer, between the No. 3 and No. 4 lanes.”
Paramedics pronounced Stweart dead at the scene at 4:35 a.m., Winter said.
The driver of the big rig, described as a 57-year-old La Puente man, suffered no injures, Steward added.
The crash remains under investigation, and anyone with information can reach the CHP’s Santa Fe Springs-area office at 562-868-0503.

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La Puente man denies fatal 2011 shooting of girlfriend whose body was found in Turnbull Canyon


HACIENDA HEIGHTS >> A man accused of shooting his girlfriend to death in 2011 and dumping her body in Turnbull Canyon in Hacienda Heights before fleeing to Mexico appeared in a Pomona courthouse this week to answer to a murder charge, authorities said.
Francisco Nila Rojas, 39, of La Puente pleaded not guilty Tuesday in connection with the February 11, 2011, slaying of Claudia Tecuautzin, 41, of La Puente, according to Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Sarah Ardalani. He’s also accused of the special allegation of personally using a gun in the crime.
“Rojas allegedly shot his girlfriend in the head and left her body near Turnbull Canyon Road and Skyline Drive in Hacienda Heights,” Ardalani said in a written statement.
Tecuautzin had been reported missing by her family before her body was discovered about 10 feet down an embankment in Turnbull Canyon, near Skyline Drive, on March 2, 2011, according to Los Angeles County sheriff’s and coroner officials said. But due to the condition of her body, identification was delayed, and she was officially listed as a Jane Doe in the weeks following the slaying.
An autopsy found that Tecuautzin died from a gunshot wound to the head, and the death was ruled a homicide, coroner Assistant Chief of Operations Ed Winter said.
Rojas was quickly identified as the suspect in Tecuautzin’s slaying. Prosecutors filed a murder charge against him in April of 2011, Ardalani said.
But Rojas, a Mexican national, fled to Mexico shortly after the fatal shooting, Lt. John Corina of the Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau said.
He remained a fugitive for more than three years, but investigators never gave up searching for him.
Officials tracked him down in Mexico in 2014, where he was jailed for about a year before being extradited back to the Unites States to face trial in October of last year, Ardalani said.
Rojas and Tecuautzin first became acquainted about a year before the slaying, Corina said. Both worked for the same company vending snacks from push carts.
The co-workers began a romantic relationship several months before Tecuautzin vanished.
Worried family members reported her missing and began a search themselves, sheriff’s and coroner’s officials said. A family member searching the area discovered remains, later identified as those of Tecuautzin.
Coroner’s officials worked until the following day to carefully collect the remains.
Homicide detectives and prosecutors declined to discuss the specific motive in the killing Wednesday.
Rojas was ordered back to court June 23 for a pre-preliminary hearing, according to district attorney’s officials. If convicted as charged, he faces up to 50 years to life in state prison.

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Hit-and-run driver sought after running over, badly injuring La Puente teen in Hacienda Heights

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HACIENDA HEIGHTS >> Authorities and loved ones are reaching out to the public for help in finding a hit-and-run driver who struck and dragged 18-year-old college student in Hacienda Heights last weekend, then fled the scene.
Isabel Gonzalez of La Puente remained hospitalized Thursday with major injuries suffered after she was struck by a car about 11 p.m. Sunday along Gale Avenue, at Riderwood Lane, according to California Highway Patrol officials and family members. She has undergone four surgeries since the incident.
“This was a hit and run of a beautiful young lady that was crossing the street and was ran over, dragged, and was just left there,” Gonzalez’s aunt Lucy Solis said. “Isabel suffered major injuries and remains hospitalized at (Los Angeles County-)USC Medical Center.”
California Highway Patrol investigators, who are handling the investigation, were left with few leads to follow, Officer Al Perez said.
Perez said he could not confirm initial reports that the involved car was described as a silver 2013- or 2014-model Honda or Toyota.
Gonzalez was walking south across Gale Avenue when she was struck by a car in the westbound, right-hand lane, Perez said.
Gonzales was struck after she had just finished a shift at an area Olive Garden restaurant and was heading home along with her boyfriend, who also works at the restaurant, Solis said. The boyfriend was walking ahead of Gonzalez when she was struck.
Solis said her niece suffered injuries including a shattered pelvis, a fractures skull, broken ribs and internal bleeding.
Gonzalez’s leg was severely injured, and it was unclear whether she would walk again, thee aunt said. But she had not suffered brain damage.
Doctors removed a breathing tube Tuesday, and Gonzalez has been breathing on her own since, Solis said. The injured woman has drifted in and out of consciousness, though she remains heavily sedated. And family members were encouraged when Gonzales recently took a sip of water.
Gonzalez is a student at California State University, Los Angeles, where she is studying to be a translator on a scholarship, Solis said.
Officials and family members asked anyone with information to contact the CHP’s Santa Fe Springs area office at 562-868-0503 during business hours. After hours, tips may be submitted to the CHP at 800-835-5247.
Funds to help the family cover medical expenses are being collected online at www.gofundme.com/Isabel_Gonzalez.

PHOTOS: [LEFT] Isabel Gonzalez, 18, of La Puente, was struck and injured by a hit and run driver on Gale Avenue, east of 7th Avenue, in Hacienda Heights late Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. Photo undated. (Courtesy) [RIGHT] Isabel Gonzalez, 18, of La Puente, was struck and injured by a hit and run driver on Gale Avenue, east of 7th Avenue, in Hacienda Heights late Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016. She’s pictured here at a hospital on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. (Courtesy)

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Woman killed while crossing street in Rowland Heights, driver accused of DUI


ROWLAND HEIGHTS >> A Hacienda Heights man is accused of being high on drugs when he struck and killed a woman as she crossed the street in Rowland Heights late Tuesday, authorities said.
Yussef Hadi Afra, 23, is accused of felony drunken driving in connection with the 7 p.m. collision on Batson Avenue, just south of Colima Road, according to California Highway Patrol officials and Los Angeles County booking records.
The identity of the woman killed remained unknown Wednesday, Investigator B. Kim of the Los Angeles County Department of Medical-Examiner Coroner said. She was officially listed as a “Jane Doe.”
Afra was driving a 2015 Honda Civic northbound on Batson Avenue as the woman was crossing west across the roadway, officer Tim Zaspal of the CHP’s Santa Fe Springs area office said in a written statement.
The Honda struck the woman, who was rushed to a hospital with major injuries, Zaspal said. She died a short time later.
“(Afra) was arrested for driving under the influence of drugs,” Zaspal added. It was unclear what type of drugs Afra was accused of being under the influence of.
After being examined at a hospital, Afra was booked into jail, where he was being held in lieu of $100,000 bail, according to officials and records.

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Three men arrested for car burglary, auto theft in Whittier


WHITTIER >> A tipster helped police arrest three men accused of breaking into a car at the Whittwood Town Center mall Tuesday night, then fleeing in a stolen car, officials said.
David Payan, 31, of El Monte, Jose Pedro Zavala, 26, of El Monte and Jose Luis Hernandez, 25, of Hacienda Heights, were booked on suspicion of auto burglary and auto theft following their 77:20 p.m. arrests, according to Whittier police officials and Los Angeles County booking records.
A witness called police to report seeing burglars breaking into a car parked at the Whittwood Town Center, 15466 Whittier Blvd., Whittier police said in a written statement.
The tipster followed the suspects in their car and provided information to police, Lt. Aaron Ruiz said.
Officers stopped the suspects and took them into custody in the 15100 block Mulberry Drive in South Whittier, he said.
“Officers were able to detain three suspects and recover property taken in the burglary,” according to the police statement.
Police soon determined that the car the suspects had been using had been reported stolen in Los Angeles, officials said.
All three suspects were being held in lieu of $35,000 bail pending their initial court appearances, records show.

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Man sought in armed robbery of woman at Hacienda Heights park

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HACIENDA HEIGHTS >> Investigators Thursday released a sketch of a man who robbed a woman of her purse at gunpoint inside the women’s restroom at a Hacienda Heights park last week.
The crime took place about 3:35 p.m. Jan. 22 at Countrywood Park, 16817 Copper Hill Drive, Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials said in a written statement.
“The victim was exiting the restroom stall when she was confronted by the suspect, who was holding a black handgun and demanded her purse,” according to the statement.
The woman handed over her purse, and the robber fled in an older-model, tan or brown, four-door Toyota Camry. He was described as a Latino man between 30 and 40 years old, 5 feet 8 inches tall, 180 pound, with black hair, brown eyes and a goatee. He wore a gray shirt and dark blue pants.
Anyone with information is encouraged to contact Detective Steven Lanigan of the sheriff’s Parks Services Bureau at 661-294-3544.

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

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UPDATED: Hacienda Heights woman goes missing in Monterey Park found safe in Rosemead

MONTEREY PARK >> A 68-year-old Hacienda Heights woman with Alzheimer’s disease and other medical problem who vanished from a Monterey Park restaurant Wednesday afternoon was reunited with her worried family Wednesday evening, officials said.
Su Zhen Liao was dining with family about 4 p.m. at the Ocean Star dim sum restaurant, 145 N. Atlantic Blvd., when she went to use the restroom, Monterey Park police Lt. Eric Kim said. She failed to return, and worried family members soon reported her missing.
“(Liao) suffers from Alzheimer’s disease and takes various medications for various medical conditions,” police said in a written statement.
A family member spotted Liao walking along San Gabriel Boulevard near the 60 Freeway in the Rosemead area, Kim said. She was unharmed.

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Man robbed at gunpoint at Hacienda Heights has station


HACIENDA HEIGHTS >> Deputies are seeking two men who robbed a gas station patron as he sat in his car late Saturday.
The crime took place about 10:50 p.m. at an ARCO station at Colima Road and Azusa Avenue, Los Angeles County sheriff’s Sgt. Desiree Campuzano said.
A man in his 20s was sitting in his car when two robbers approached, she said. One of them was armed with a black, semi-automatic pistol.
The bandits demanded the victim’s property, fleeing with ah gold watch, a gold ring, a bracelet, two cell phones, a wallet and about $200 in cash, the sergeant said.
A detailed suspect description was not available Sunday as investigators continued pursuing leads in the case.
Anyone with information can reach the sheriff’s Industry Station at 626-330-3322. Tips may also be submitted anonymously to L.A. Regional Crime Stoppers at 800-222-8477.

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UPDATED: Second victim of mysterious Hacienda Heights double-slaying identified as 16-year-old boy


HACIENDA HEIGHTS >> Authorities have identified a victim found stabbed to death inside a Hacienda Heights house along with the elderly homeowner last month as a teenage boy, but the mystery surrounding the circumstances of the double slaying remains.
Gavin Bustamante, 16, was found dead along with June Collins, 84, on Oct. 7 at Collins’ home in the 16600 block of Carriage Place, Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner Lt. Alyssa Fleak said. Sheriff’s offiicals said he was also known as Gavin Wilhelm.
An autopsy determined both victims had been stabbed to death.
But exactly what unfolded inside the Carriage place home remained a mystery, Lt. John Corina of the Sheriff’ Homicide Bureau said.
The coroner’s identification of the young victim represents, “another piece of the puzzle,” he said. But detectives still have their work cut out for them.
““We’re trying to figure out who was there and who did what they did,” Corina said.
Both bodies were already well into the stages of decomposition when they were found by deputies who has been asked to check on Collins, Los Angeles County sheriff’s and coroner officials said.
Lt. John Corina of the Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau estimated the killing took place about a week before the bodies were discovered.
Investigators noted signs of a struggle within the home, but no evidence of forced entry into the house, Corina said in the days following the double-homicide. Robbery was not believed to be the motive.
Handling homicide detectives could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Sheriff’s officials and neighbors said Collins had a 54-year-old adult son who was in jail for abusing his mother at the time of the killing.
But many associates of the son continued coming by Collins’ home, and even staying there at times, during the son’s incarceration, officials said.
Bustamante was believed to be one of those associates.
No city of residence for the teen was listed at the coroner’s office, however Corina said Bustamante, a former El Monte resident, had been staying at Collins’ home for several months.
Capt. Tim Murakami of the sheriff’s Industry Station said it appeared the son’s associates, often drug addicts, were taking advantage of Collins, who suffered from dementia.
Anyone with information is asked to contact the Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau at 323-890-5500. Tips may also be submitted anonymously to L.A. Regional Crime Stoppers at 800-222-8477.

PHOTO of fatal stabbing victim June Collins, 84, of Hacienda Heights courtesy of the California DMV.

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