La Puente woman convicted of stabbing elderly West Covina man to death, setting house on fire

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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

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Police seek missing West Covina girl

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WEST COVINA >> Authorities are seeking a 13-year-old girl who went missing from her West Covina home Sunday morning.
Natalie Ilene Alvarado, who requires medication for a medical condition, was last seen about 11 a.m. near her home in the 2700 block of South Azusa Avenue, West Covina police officials said in a written statement.
She’s described as Latina, 5 feet 6 inches tall, 130 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes.
Anyone with information is asked to contact West Covina police at 626-939-8500 regarding case 16-5712.

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UPDATED: Montebello woman killed in crash on 10 Freeway offramp in West Covina


WEST COVINA >> A Montebello woman died early Sunday after the car in which she was riding as a passenger crashed on a 10 Freeway offramp in West Covina early Sunday, officials said.
Melissa Ann Villanueva, 33, died following the solo-car crash, Officer T. Brazier of the California Highway Patrol’s Baldwin Park area office said in a written statement.
The driver of the 2013 Kia Forte, 34-year-old Jeanet Cuadra, was arrested, Brazier said. CHP officials declined to say Sunday what crime Cuadra was suspected of.
The fatal crash occurred just before 6 a.m. on the Barranca Street offramp of the westbound 10 Freeway, California Highway Patrol Officer Stephan Brandt said.
Cuadra was driving at 65 to 70 mph and had just crossed into the right-hand lane in advance of exiting the freeway, Brazier said.
“Cuadra fell asleep and traveled onto the fore point of the offramp and collided into the multiple attenuators,” he said.
“Cuadra was seat belted and sustained moderate, non-life-threatening injuries,” Brazier said.
“The right, front passenger of the Kia, Melissa Ann Villanueva, was asleep at the time of the collision and was not wearing her seat belt,” the officer said. “The impact into the attenuators caused Villanueva to be propelled forward and into the Kia’s windshield.”
Cuadra and good Samaritans got Villanueva out of the mangled car. Paramedics pronounced her dead at the scene at 6:08 a.m.
Authorities issues a Sig Alert for the offramp that lasted through noon as they investigated the scene and repaired the damaged roadway.
Anyone with information is asked to contact Officer Brazier at the CHP’s Baldwin Park area office at 626-338-1164.

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Man and woman arrested following taxi driver robbery in West Covina


WEST COVINA >> Detectives Thursday arrested the second of two suspects accused of robbing a taxi cab driver after ordering a ride to Galster Park in West Covina.
The crime took place about 5:30 a.m. Wednesday at the park, along Aroma Drive at Galster Way, West Covina police Lt. Jerry Pearman said.
The suspects ordered a taxi ride in another city and had the driver take them to the secluded park, he said.
“It was a set-up,” Pearman said. The suspects allegedly pulled a gun and demanded the driver’s property, including his money and cell phone.
The lieutenant said the driver turned over the items and was not injured. The robbers fled, and police searching the area did not find them.
But detectives continues working the case and were able to use the stolen cell phone to track the male suspect to a neighborhood not far from the park, Pearman said. They watched as the man tried to drive away, then pulled over his car and took him into custody.
Detectives found and arrested the female suspect while serving a search warrant on Thursday, he said.
Both suspects were booked on suspicion of robbery, Pearman said. Their identities were not available Thursday afternoon.

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Alleged burglars, resident arrested following attempted break-in at residential marijuana farm in West Covina house


WEST COVINA >> Police arrested three alleged burglars, as well as the resident, following an attempted break-in Wednesday at a house containing an indoor marijuana farm, officials said.
Police first responded to the home in the 1800 block of David Court about 1 p.m. when a neighbor reported a possible burglary in progress, West Covina police Lt. Jerry Pearman said. The witnesses reported seeing several people, one of them armed with a handgun, smashing windows and trying to get into the home.
Officers found and detained three alleged suspects in the area, Pearman said. They were arrested on suspicion of burglary, and detectives continued investigating the trio late Wednesday for possible additional charges.
The ultimate intentions of the suspects, had the crime not been interrupted by police, remained unclear.
Officers also arrested the home’s resident after finding about 30 marijuana plants growing inside the home, Pearman said.
It appeared many more plants had been recently harvested at the home, he added.
The suspects names were not immediately available.

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Three wounded in Baldwin Park car-to-car shooting; possible suspects detained after chase


BALDWIN PARK >> Three young men suffered gunshot wounds in a car-to-car attack in Baldwin Park early Sunday morning, authorities said.
Two suspects were arrested following a pursuit that originated in Baldwin Park about the same time as the shooting took place, and detectives were investigating the possibility the two incident were related.
The shooting occurred about 2 a.m. in the area of Ramona Boulevard and Badillo Street, Baldwin Park police Sgt. Shawn Blackburn said.
The three young men, along with a teen who was not struck by the gunfire, were riding in a car when gunshots rang out from another vehicle, officials said.
Blackburn said the car continued driving east for about three miles before coming to a stop at Badillo Street and Phillips Avenue, across the city border in West Covina.
One of the victims was hospitalized in critical condition after undergoing emergency surgery, he said. The other two victims were in stable condition.
All three wounded men were in their late teens or 20s, West Covina Fire Department Capt. Esteban Rodriguez said.
Just before authorities received word of the shooting, Baldwin Park officers were involved with a pursuit of a pickup truck, police said.
Officers chased the fleeing truck to Rosemead, but cancelled the pursuit due to safety concerns, Blackburn said.
But a helicopter continued following the truck as it headed back east toward West Covina, where West Covina police resumed the chase.
The pursuit led back to Baldwin Park, where the driver and passenger ultimately stopped and surrendered, police said. Their identities were not available Sunday morning.
“The investigations regarding both incidents are ongoing, and it has not been confirmed that they are related at this time,” Baldwin Park police said in a written statement.
Anyone with information is asked to contact Baldwin Park police Capt. Joe Bartolotti at 626-960-1955. Tips may also be submitted anonymously to L.A. Regional Crime Stoppers at 800-222-8477.

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Lakewood man killed in fiery West Covina crash that also killed Taiwanese fugitive identified


WEST COVINA >> Coroner’s officials have identified a Lakewood man who died in a fiery multi-car freeway wreck in West Covina last week along with a South Pasadena man described as one of Taiwan’s most wanted fugitives, authorities said.
Gregory Donald Smith, 69, died at the scene of the crash, which took place about 1 a.m. on May 27 on the westbound 10 Freeway, just east of Citrus Avenue, said Ed Winter, assistant chief of operations at the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner.
He was unable to get out of his pickup truck following the crash. The truck became engulfed in flames.
An autopsy determined Smith died of “thermal burns,” and the death was ruled accidental, Winter said.
Also killed in the crash while driving another vehicle was 89-year-old You T. Wang, also identified by authorities as Wang You-theng, of South Pasadena.
Wang was in the middle of a decade-long court battle to avoid extradition to Taiwan, where he’s accused of embezzling more than $9 billion from a steel company called Rebar, which Wang founded in 1959. He allegedly drained the company’s assets and fled to the U.S. after the company when business took a sour turn in 2006.
Wang was ordered removed from the U.S. in late-2014 after years of litigation.
His appeal of that order was dismissed in December, but he then filed a petition for a review of his case by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Virginia Kice.
That review was yet to be heard when Wang was killed in last week’s crash.
The cause of the fiery five-car chain reaction, which resulted in two separate crash scenes, remained under investigation by the CHP.
It was initially believed to have been triggered when a Toyota Tacoma driven by Smith sideswiped a Lexus in the left-hand lane, initiating a series of collisions, CHP Officer Rodrigo Jimenez said.
Anyone with information can reach the Baldwin Park area office of the CHP at 626-338-1164.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Man charged with shooting of West Covina police officer

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WEST COVINA >> Prosecutors charged a man with attempted murder of a police officer and other charges Wednesday in connection with the shooting of a West Covina police officer during a gun battle last month.
Jose Luis Chavez, 47, of West Covina, is charged with attempted murder of a police officer, assault on a peace officer with a semi-automatics firearm and possession of a firearm by a felon, Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office spokesman Greg Risling said.
After fleeing the scene of the May 20 shooting along Yaleton Avenue, just north of Badillo Street, Chavez remained a fugitive for six days before a SWAT team found and arrested him inside a residential garage in Valinda early on May 26, authorities said.
Chavez entered no plea Wednesday, Risling said. He was scheduled to return to the West Covina branch of the Los Angeles County Superior Court Thursday for arraignment.
West Covina police Officer Kenny Benitez suffered a through-and-through gunshot wound to his abdomen in the shooting, West Covina Police Chief David Faulkner said. He has since been released from the hospital and is continuing his recovery at home.
Chavez was pushing a bicycle, accompanied by a woman, when the officer thought him suspicious and approached him, according to police Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials, who are assisting West Covina police in the investigation.
Chavez ran, sheriff’s officials said. Following a short foot chase, Chavez pulled a handgun and began shooting at the officer, who returned fire.
It was not immediately clear whether the suspect — later identified as Chavez — was wounded in the exchange of gunfire. But upon his arrest nearly a week later, investigators noted he was an apparent gunshot wound to his arm.
Lt. Steve Jauch of the Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau said Chavez, who is on felony probation under AB 109 guidelines following a previous conviction, has a lengthy and violent criminal record.
If convicted as charged, Chavez could spend the rest of life in state prison, Risling said.
Chavez was being held without bail, records show.

PHOTO of Jose Luis Chavez, 47, of West Covina courtesy of the West Covina Police Department.

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UPDATED: West Covina police arrest man and woman following bizarre pursuit, crash in Bassett


WEST COVINA >> In a strange seemingly illogical series chain of events, a man and woman called police on themselves to falsely report a carjacking Friday before leading West Covina police on a chase that ended with a crash in Bassett that injured two bystanders, including a little girl, authorities said.
Britanny Benquenchea, 26, and Joshua Rodriguez, 27, both of Victorville, were accused of crimes including evading police and assault with a deadly weapon in connection with the bizarre episode, which began just after 7 p.m. at the Plaza West Covina shopping mall, West Covina police Lt. Travis Tibbetts said. Both are on parole for robbery, and Benquenchea wears a GPS tracking device.
Police first responded to the mall, 112 Plaza Drive, after a woman called 911 to report she had been carjacked of her 2015 Toyota Corolla at gunpoint by a man and woman, the lieutenant said.
Responding officers spotted a car matching the description of the stolen Toyota, containing a man and woman matching the description of the carjackers, driving just south of the mall.
Benquenchea, who was driving, refused to pull over for police, initiating a high-speed chase.
The pursuit ended minutes later when the fleeing car struck a civilian vehicle at Amar Road and Willow Avenue, Tibbetts said.
Both suspects were detained at the scene, he said. Police used a K-9 to help apprehend the male suspect, who refused to comply with officers’ commands.
An 8-year-old girl who was riding in the car struck by the fleeing suspects was initially hospitalized in critical condition, but was expected to survive, Tibbetts said. A woman in the vehicle, described only as an adult, was also hospitalized. Neither victims injuries were believed to be life threatening.
The investigation then took an unexpected turn.
Officers determined Benquenchea herself had called the police to falsely report being carjacked, Tibbetts said.
After being involved in a fight and getting escorted from the mall by security guards, Benquenchea and Rodriguez became involved in a confrontation with security before speeding away from the mall, police said.
The suspects may have struck a parked car as they left, he said. The details of the incident at the mall remained unclear late Friday.
“Apparently, they decided to call and report a carjacking, describing themselves as the suspects,” Tibbetts said.
The call appeared to be some sort of ill-thought-out ruse to divert police attention from the mall incident, he said. Although Benquenchea gave descriptions matching herself and Rodriguez as that of the phony carjackers, she reported the purported carjackers had fled in the opposite direction.
Benquenchea gave her real first name while reporting the carjacking, Tibbetts added. And when police called back the number, Benquenchea’s phone rang through the Toyota’s wireless audio system.
“I’ve never seen that before,” Tibbetts said.
Witness Christopher Morales posted footage of the male suspect being taken into custody with the help of a police K-9 on the social media network.
Another witness, April Aguirre, posted video of the aftermath of the collision in which firefighters can be seen treating an injured patient on Twitter.
The female suspect appeared to be wearing a GPS ankle bracelet, she said. “When they brought her out she seemed like she was on drugs,” the witness added.
In an email, Aguirre said she did not see the crash itself, as she arrived afterward.
“When I got there they had a male on a gurney taking him away. Then a couple minutes later they had a female in the video in handcuffs & she could barely walk or she was resisting it seemed like,” she said.
The woman yelled out, “Please don’t leave me,” and other phrases as firefighters treated her injuries, Aguirre said.
Both suspects were hospitalized prior to booking, Tibbetts said.

VIDEO: Courtesy of Christopher Morales

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UPDATED: Two dead in fiery crash on 10 Freeway in West Covina


WEST COVINA >> Two people died in a fiery three-vehicle crash on the 10 Freeway in West Covina early Friday, authorities said.
The crash was reported about 1:10 a.m. on the westbound 10 Freeway, just east of Citrus Avenue, according to California Highway Patrol logs.
Two patients were pronounced dead at the scene, CHP Officer Patrick Kimball said. One more person was taken to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center in unknown condition.
One of the two involved vehicles caught fire, and “multiple explosions,” were reported, according to CHP logs.
The source of the explosions was unclear, Kimball said.
Bryan Garcia said he was on his way home with his wife when the collision unfolded behind him in the westbound lanes.
“A car lost control then I saw a fireball behind me,” he said.
It appeared one vehicle struck another, then hit the center divider and burst into flames, Garcia said.
Witness Lauren Walton described a similar scenario via Twitter, but from a vantage point behind the crash.
“I watched the car drift, collide, then a huge explosion. Called 911,” she posted on the social media network.
“I watched the last few minutes of someone’s life tonight… that’s heavy. I feel for the one lady that got out,” she wrote.
No further details regarding the circumstances of the crash were immediately available.
Officials issued a Sig Alert, shutting down all westbound lanes of the 10 Freeway, officials said. The closure was expected to remain in effect past 5 a.m.

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