Woman’s body found bound in trunk of car in Hacienda Heights

Detectives launched a homicide investigation Thursday after a report of a kidnapping led deputies to discover a woman’s body in the garage of a Hacienda Heights home, apparently bound and inside the trunk of a car.
Relatives of a resident of the home at Las Tunas Drive and Avocado Terrace became worried after not hearing from her and decided to check on her about 9:30 a.m., Lt. Mike Rosson of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau said.
HHBODY2The family members saw something that roused their suspicion to the point that believe the resident of the home was being kidnapped, he said.
“Industry Station deputies received a call of a possible kidnapping in progress. That led deputies here,” Rosson said. What the family members saw that caused them to call authorities was not clear.
“At that time, they detained a male, and they also discovered a deceased female inside the location’s garage,” the lieutenant said.
He declined to comment on initial reports from the scene that the woman had been found bound and in the trunk of a car.
The woman had not been identified Thursday afternoon, and investigators had not yet had a chance to speak with family members. The woman was described by officials and neighbors as an Asian woman of about 60 years old.
The man who deputies encountered at the home, described as an Asian man in his late-30s or 40s and possible related to the dead woman, cooperated with investigators, Rosson said.
The detained man was “being questioned as a person of interest at this time, Rosson said. He had not been named a suspect in the slaying.
“The investigation is in its very, very early stages.” The lieutenant added.
Rosson said detectives did not believe the man lived at the home where the body was found, but possible visited on a regular basis.
Detectives were still waiting on a search warrant to enter home Thursday afternoon, he added.
Deputies had responded to calls in the past at the home including “domestic issues” and “maybe mental health issues,” Rosson said. He did not have further details.
Neighbors said a real estate agent lived at the home. Her husband was also believed to live there, and the couple’s adult son was often seen.
Pending an officials identification of the woman, neighbors hoped that the victim was not their longtime friend, who they said had lived in the neighborhood for more than 15 years.
Neighbor Rene Garciacano recalled seeing something that struck him as suspicious about 7:30 a.m. Thursday when he passed the house while bringing his children to school.
“The garage door was up,” he said, adding that the door has always been down in the past.
Garciacano said there were helicopters overhead when he returned home about 10 a.m.
When he turned on television news to see what was happening, “I recognized the house immediately,” Garciacano said.
The neighbor added he hoped the woman found dead was no his neighbor.
“She’s a very nice lady. She keeps to herself,” he said. Though neighborhood residents tend to be private, “She is a well-respected lady in this neighborhood.”
Andy Wang said he teaches Tai Chi to the woman who lives at the home every Saturday, and he, too, hoped she was okay.
He said he had seen the woman’s son visiting her on several occasions, and was not aware of any trouble in her household.
To see a massive sheriff’s investigation at his friend’s home, then learn a woman had been found dead there, “I’m shocked.”
“She is a nice lady,” he said.

VIDEO by Brian Day., PHOTO by Walt Mancini

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Man sentenced for arson fire that destroyed sanctuary of Hacienda Heights church

7-19-13 SHIGASENTENCE01

A judge sentenced man to 18 years to life in prison Friday for lighting an arson fire that destroyed the sanctuary of a Catholic Church in Hacienda Heights on April 16 of 2011.
A Pomona Superior Court jury earlier this month convicted Gregory Yusuke Shiga, 35, of Hacienda Heights of five felony counts related to the arson fire that caused about $9 million worth of damage at St. John Vianney Church, 1345 Turnbull Canyon Road.
Two priests sleeping in a rectory that also caught fire adjacent to the destroyed sanctuary narrowly escaped from the building, according to prosecutors and investigators.
“I never got the impression from Mr. Shiga that he was remorseful for his actions or their effect on a large community that cared deeply about that place,” said Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Renee Rose, who prosecuted the case.
She went on to request Judge Thomas Falls hand down the maximum sentences for the charges under the law, describing Shiga as a continuing threat to the public.
Falls agreed, imposing the maximum sentence of 18 years to life in prison.
Shiga was convicted of aggravated arson, arson of a structure, arson of an inhabited structure, possession of an incendiary device and burglary. The jury also found true special allegations that multiple structures were burned, the fire was likely to cause injury and that an accelerant was used in the arson.
Shiga is eligible to receive 15 percent credit for good behavior while incarcerated for eight years of his prison sentence. However he must serve 10 years in full, without reductions for good behavior, Rose explained. She estimated Shiga will first become eligible for a parole hearing in about 16 years.
Shiga previously underwent a mental evaluation which determined he was fit to stand trial, though officials said Shiga adamantly denied suffering from any form of mental illness, according to Los Angeles Archdiocese Canonical Auditor Marty Gallagher, a former FBI agent who worked alongside church officials and law enforcement officials during the investigation.
Against the judge’s advice, Shiga fired his defense attorney and chose to represent himself just before his trial began, officials said. But Falls said Shiga had shown he was aware of what was going on and even complimented him on his courtroom demeanor and knowledge.
When asked by Judge Falls if he had a statement to make prior to receiving his sentence Friday, Shiga responded that he did.
“It’s 9:17 a.m. July 19th. That’s about it,” he said.
Shiga, who was described by investigators as highly intelligent, “is fixated with numbers,” Rose said.
Among other tattoos not visible in the courtroom, Shiga had the number seven tattooed on top of his left hand, and the number nine tattooed on top of his right hand.
The significance of the numbers was unclear, other than they appeared to be his favorites, according to an investigator.
Shiga broke into the sanctuary of St. John Vianney Church shortly after midnight on the week before Easter, Yoshino said.
He brought with him a backpack containing eight to ten rolls of toilet paper that had been soaked in flammable liquid, he said. The specific substance or substances used were not available.
He placed the fuel-soaked toilet paper rolls as “strategic” locations within the sanctuary, Yoshino said.
He opened up every other window in the sanctuary to help the fire spread faster, Rose said.
Using a sprayer similar to the type used for spraying weeds, Shiga then sprayed the ceiling and walls of the church with flammable liquid before using a tiki torch to set the structure ablaze, Rose said. The sanctuary was quickly engulfed with flames, which also spread to the occupied rectory next door where two priests were sleeping upstairs.
Following his arrest more than a year after the fire, Rose said investigators found Shiga had visited and photographed the church before the arson fire.
A break in the case came when a former school teacher of Shiga’s came forward to report a suspicious encounter with Shiga prior to the arson, Rose said.
Barbara Clark taught Shiga about 20 years ago when he attended St. Mark’s Lutheran School in Hacienda Heights, according to the prosecutor.
Her former pupil arrived at the campus about two weeks prior to the arson, where Clark was principal, Rose said. He spoke to her and asked many questions about St. John Vianney Church and the symbolism behind its statues and other items.
“It didn’t mean much to her at the time,” Rose said. But following the massive fire, Clark decided to report the encounter to authorities.
Witnesses shown photographic line-ups including Shiga then identified him as the arsonist, she said. He was arrested May 14, 2012.
Beyond a general grievance against the Catholic Church, of which Shiga was never a member, a definitive motive was not revealed through the trial, according to Sgt. Derek Yoshino of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Arson-Explosives Detail. Sheriff’s investigators, along with FBI agents, investigated the case.
“He indicated he wanted to make a statement against the Catholic Church,” Yoshino said. But the arsonist never elaborated.
“It was pretty general,” the sergeant said. “At this point, we’re left to assume what his actual motive was.”
Rose said while Shiga may have claimed to have complaints regarding the church in an attempt to justify the crimes, it was always about Shiga himself.
“I think he did it for the attention,” Rose said.
Even as he waited to be sentenced to prison, Shiga seemed to enjoy being the focus of attention. He appeared pleased to see reporters in the courtroom.
Sentencings normally are not carried out so quickly following a trial, Falls said. “The defendant requested a speedy sentencing.”
In addition to sentencing Shiga to prison, Falls ordered him to pay the church $8.9 million in restitution, though he acknowledged the convict would likely never be able to pay it.
St. John Vianney Church Rev. Msgr. Tim Nichols accepted the amount on behalf of the church.
Gallagher thanked the sheriff’s, FBI and district attorney’s office officials for their hard work in the case.
“Thank God there were no deaths,” he said. It’s a tragic event. It could have been horrendous.”

PHOTO of Gregory Shiga, 35, of Hacienda Heights during sentencing on Friday, July 19, 2013, in Pomona Superior Court. He was convicted of a massive $9 million arson that destroyed the sanctuary of St. John Vianney Church in Hacienda Heights. (Staff photo by Walt Mancini)

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Hacienda Heights man among those arrested in federal sting targeting sales of endangered species

A Hacienda Heights man is among six Southern Californians indicted Wednesday following a federal sting targeting online sales of endangered species.
Rene De La Peza, 42, of Hacienda Heights, is accused of selling the skin of a jaguar, which is an endangered species, to an undercover agent for $15,000, Assistant U.S. Attorney Rupa Goswami said.
Jaguars, the largest cat found in the Americas, has been on the endangered species list for four decades, officials said. If convicted as charges, De La Peza faces up to a year in federal prison.
Five other defendants have been indicted in Southern California through “Operation Wild Web,” Goswami said.
Nationwide, the bust netted 131 arrested in the United States, and seven internationally, the prosecutor added.
Operation Wild Web was designed to disrupt the trafficking of illegal wildlife on the Internet,” U.S. Attorney’s Office Thom Mrozek said in a written statement. “Across the United States, the Wild Web task force conducted more than 150 undercover purchases of endangered wildlife over the course of two weeks last August,” Mrozek added.
Items sold ranged from bear skins to parts from Javan eagles, officials said.
While the trade of endangered animals and their parts is not new, Goswami said the growing online market is now increasingly flooded with the illicit items.
“The ease and the anonymity of the Internet allows these sales to increase,” she said.
Also indicted in Southern California Thursday were:
*Hanna Karim, 44, and his wife Margarita Licomitros, both of Huntington Beach, on suspicion of selling a Sumatran tiger pelt
*Michael Roy McIntire, 59, of Encino, on suspicion of selling three protected birds — a canvasback, a cinnamon teal and a mallard
*Rodrigo Macedo, 29, of Hesperia, on suspicion of selling two protected Western Scrub Jays
*Lewis Keister, 42, of Los Angeles, on suspicion of selling a pair of seal fur moccasins, as well as a Native American doll believed to be made from whale bone and a bag made of seal fur
De La Peza and the other defendants were ordered to appear in federal court for arraignment Aug. 8.
“Hopefully, (Operation Wild Web) will help keep endangered animals safe in the wild,” Goswami said.

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Two women, man killed in apparent murder suicide in Hacienda Heights

Two women and a man were found fatally shot inside a Hacienda Heights home Wednesday in what investigators initially believed to be a murder-suicide.
The names of the dead women and man were not released pending positive identification and confirmation that family had been notified, Lt. Dave Dolson of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau. He described all three as being between their 50s and 80s.
Neighbors described the victim as an elderly husband and wife who lived in the home, along with another family member they often cared for who suffered from Alzheimer’s.
A 9-1-1 call reporting a shooting just after 9 a.m. brought deputies to the home on Ladysmith Street at Flatstone Avenue, Capt. Tim Murakami said. Once they entered the home, deputies found the bodies of two women who had been fatally shot, as well wounded man.
“We believe we have a murder-suicide situation,” Dolson said, but added that the investigation remained in its early stages.
“Because it’s so early in the investigation, I don’t want to emphatically make that determination,” he said.
One of the women, who made use of a wheelchair, was found fatally shot in a bedroom, Dolson said. The other woman’s body was discovered the home’s living room.
The wounded man, who was pronounced dead at a hospital shortly after the shooting, was found in the backyard of the home, Dolson said.
Two guns — a shotgun and a handgun — were found near the wounded man, sheriff’s officials said.
There were no signs an intruder had been inside the home, and no outstanding suspects were being sought, Murakami said.
It appeared Wednesday that at least one 9-1-1 call reporting the shooting came from inside the home, Dolson said. The caller had a male voice, but it was unclear if it was the suspected shooter who placed the call.
A neighbor who identified himself only as Joe said he was awakened by arguing prior to the shooting.
“I heard arguing since 7 a.m.,” he said. “It was loud.” But he added he could not make out what was being said.
About two hours later, the neighbor said he heard what sounded like two gunshots.
Joe said he found it hard to believe his neighbor could be responsible for the deaths of his wife and the second woman, whom he described as the man’s daughter-in-law.
“I can’t imagine. The kindness that he had,” he said. “They were very good neighbors. They were a nice old couple.”
The couple remained active, and the husband could often be seen working in his garage, Joe said.
And every time Joe greeted his neighbor, he said the man had the same response: “Another beautiful day.”
Neighbors said the man and wife had lived in the home for five decades, and they were shocked to learn of the violence that unfolded inside their home early Wednesday.
“I can’t believe it,” said neighbor Julie Minjarez. “They were a nice family.”
Minjarez added that she walks by the home daily and has never seen any sign of trouble.
“They were very active people,” Minjarez said, adding that they often went on vacation in a motor home.
“They seemed outgoing and lively people.”
Tom Watts, a teacher at a local elementary school, noticed helicopters hovering over Hacienda Heights and went to check on his parents after learning there was an incident unfolding near their home.
He described the couple that lived in the home as “very friendly,” and “very talkative.”
“They enjoyed camping,” Watts added.
But in a conversation Watts said his father had with the man who lived at the home about three weeks ago, the man mentioned he was depressed.

Staff photos by Watchara Phomicinda

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Hacienda Heights church arson suspect ordered to stand trial

POMONA – A judge Thursday ruled there is sufficient evidence to order a parolee accused of torching the sanctuary of a Hacienda Heights church sanctuary to stand trial for the alleged crime.
After listening to a summary of the evidence during a three-day preliminary hearing, Pomona Superior Court Judge Robert Martinez ordered Gregory Yusuke Shiga, 35, of Hacienda Heights, back to to court for a hearing on May 2, Los Angeles County District Attorney’s officials said.
He’s accused of setting an April 16, 2011, fire that destroyed the sanctuary of St. John Vianney Catohlic Church, 1345 Turnbull Canyon Road. Several other church-owned buildings were also destroyed in the blaze, which caused an estimated $6.5 million worth of damage.
A motive in the alleged arson has not been released. No one was hurt in the fire, though several church personnel who present on the church campus at the time.
Shiga is to be tried on all four charges with which he has been charged, which include aggravated arson, arson of a structure, possession of flammable material and second-degree burglary, officials said.
If convicted as charged, he faces a minimum sentence of 10 years to life in state prison.

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UPDATED: Overheard statement leads to lockdown, search at Los Altos High School in Hacienda Heights

HACIENDA HEIGHTS — School police and sheriff’s deputies found nothing suspicious as they searched Los Altos High School Wednesday after a student reported overhearing other students possibly talking about a gun in a campus bathroom.
The incident began about 8:45 a.m. Wednesday at the school, 15325 E. Los Robles Avenue, Los Angeles County sheriff’s Lt. Vic Sotelo said.
“A student who was in one of the restrooms overheard two other students that were in one of the bathroom stalls saying, ‘it’s loaded,’” the lieutenant said. The student did not report seeing a gun.
The student reported the incident to administrators, who then checked the bathroom but found no one inside, Sotelo said.
Sheriff’s deputies assisted officers from the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District in locking down the school and looking for the student who made the alarming statement, as well as any weapon on campus, Sotelo said.
Several buildings on the campus were being checked, and both students and classrooms were searched with the help of a police dog.
Officials searched each of the school’s more than 2,000 students, sheriff’s Sgt. Desiree Rodriguez said.
The lockdown was lifted about 3 p.m., and parents were advised to park at nearby St. John Vianney Church, 1345 Turnbull Canyon Road, to pick up students. They were told they must be listed on the students’ emergency contact card and have photo identification.
“The students and the staff are safe and we had immediate law enforcement response,” school district Superintendent Barbara Nakaoka said.
In addition to district police officers, “I believe we had probably 125 sheriff’s deputies there,” she said.
Parents of students were notified of the incident via automated phone calls as well as the district’s web and Facebook pages.
Though nothing dangerous was discovered in the end, Nakaoka said, “We have to take everything seriously.”

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Robbery reported near ATM in Hacienda Heights

HACIENDA HEIGHTS — A person was robbed while visiting an ATM Saturday, officials said.
The crime was reported shortly before 5 p.m. in the area of Hacienda Boulevard and Newton Street, Los Angeles County sheriff’s Sgt. John Suh said.
The robber, described only as a Latino man brandishing a black semi-automatic handgun and obtained about $300 from the victim before fleeing, officials said.

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La Puente woman accused of DUI following head-on crash in Hacienda Heights

HACIENDA HEIGHTS — A La Puente woman was behind bars Saturday on suspicion of drunken driving in connection with an early-morning head-on crash that sent six people to the hospital, authorities said.
Samantha Rey Rodriguez, 21, was booked on suspicion of felony drunken driving in connection with the 12:19 a.m. crash on Countrywood Avenue near Colima Road, according to California Highway Patrol officials and county booking records.
Rodriguez was at the wheel of a 1994 Acura Legend that slammed head-on into a 2006 Honda Civic being driven by a 66-year-old La Puente woman, CHP Officer Monica Posada said.
Six people were treated for injuries ranging from minor to moderate, Posada said, though it was not immediately clear which car or cars the injured people were riding in.
Rodriguez was being held in lieu of $100,000 bail pending her initial court appearance, records show.

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Crash involving spilled swimming pool chemicals snarls 60 Freeway traffic in Hacienda Heights

HACIENDA HEIGHTS — A two-vehicle crash involving spilled swimming pool chemicals prompted a Sig Alert on the Pomona (60) Freeway early Thursday, officials said.
The incident was reported just after 7 a.m. on the westbound 60 Freeway near Azusa Avenue.
No major injuries were initially reported in the crash between a large pickup truck and another vehicle, however four to five gallons of an undetermined swimming pool chemical the truck was hauling spilled into the roadway, California Highway Patrol Officer Ed Jacobs said.
Officials treated the spill cautiously and shut down the three right traffic lanes, though a hazardous materials crew was not called in, he said.
All traffic lanes were reopened about 9 a.m.

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Hacienda Heights stabbing victim found on bus

A bleeding man on a bus turned out to be a stabbing victim Friday night.
Sat. Dan Jackson of the sheriff’s Industry Station said someone on the bus noticed the 48-year-old transient bleeding and called the station at 8:10 p.m.
Deputies stopped the bus in front of the Puente Hills Mall, 1600 N. Azusa Ave. in Industry.
Jackson said the man, who was stabbed in the stomach, told deputies the attack happened in a parking lot in the 1100 block of Hacienda Boulevard in Hacienda Heights.
But the man won’t give the name and description of the suspect and didn’t say what led to the attack, according to Jackson.
He said the man was in stable condition at Los Angeles County USC Medical Center.

- Ruby Gonzales

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