Man accused of series of arson fires in Whittier, Santa Fe Springs

SANTA FE SPRINGS >> A homeless man accused of setting at least four fires in Whittier and Santa Fe Springs over the weekend
pleaded not guilty Wednesday to four counts of arson, authorities said.
Police arrested Jesse Jesus Provencio, 27, Monday in connection with an arson fire reported the previous day in front of a Santa Fe Springs business, according to Whittier police officials and Los Angeles County booking records. He was described as a transient known to frequent the Santa Fe Springs area.
He’s accused with igniting four arson fires in all Sunday, scorching trees and brush but no structures, according to police and Los Angeles County District Attorney’s officials.
Police and firefighters responded shortly before 11:15 a.m. Sunday to a report of a palm tree on fire in the 11900 block of Burke Street, Whittier police said in a written statement.
“Upon arrival, officers found a palm tree to the front of a local business fully engulfed in flames,” according to the police statement. Santa Fe Springs firefighters quickly doused the flames.
“The business was closed at the time and there were no injuries reported,” according to the statement. The fire caused an estimated $300 worth of damage.
The suspect was gone when officials arrived, police said. But detectives obtained surveillance camera footage which had captured the image of the alleged arsonist. The description was distributed to patrol officers.
Officers spotted a man matching the description near the scene of the Burke Street fire just before 11 a.m. Monday and arrested him, police said. The suspect, later identified as Provencio, was arrested on suspicion of arson.
Investigators soon linked Provencio to at least three additional fires that occurred the same day.
In addition to the fire in the 11900 block of Burke Avenue, prosecutors also charged Provencio with lighting another small arson fire in the 11800 block of Burke Street in Santa Fe Springs, and two in the 11800 block of Grande Vista Avenue in Whittier, according to a felony complaint filed against him.
Investigators continued working to try to connect Provencio to other recent suspected arson fired, including one Saturday in the 11800 block of Washington Boulevard, near the 605 Freeway, in which eight palm trees were scorches, Scoggins said.
The officer added that is was fortunate the suspect was captured before the series of fires resulted in more serious property damage or injury.
While a motive for the alleged arsons was unclear, Scoggins said there was no indication Provencio harbored an particular animosity toward the business in front of which he lit the fire.
According to county booking records, Provencio was being held in lieu of $50,000 bail. He was scheduled to appear in Norwalk Superior Court Feb. 4 for a preliminary hearing setting, district attorney’s office spokeswoman Sarah Ardalani said.

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Chino Hills man fatally shot in Whittier identified

WHITTIER >> Coroner’s officials have released the name of a 26-year-old Chino Hills man killed in a shooting at Broadway Park Whittier last week.
Jesus David Molina, 26, died at a hospital shortly after he was shot about 9:45 p.m. Tuesday at Broadway Park, 12816 Broadway, Los Angeles County Department of Coroner Investigator Kristy McCracken said.
Two male attackers approached Molina as he was sitting in the park, according to Whittier police Officer John Scroggins.
After a brief exchange of words, one of the two attackers shot Molina and fled, he said. Officers responding to reports of a shooting found Molina suffering from gunshot wounds to his chest.
No further details were available.

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UPDATED: Missing elderly Whittier man found safe

WHITTIER >> A 72-year-old Whittier man who went missing Friday during his usual walk on the Greenway Trail turned up safe and sound Sunday at a relative’s home, police said.
Roger Metzler disappeared after going got his routine walk on the Greenway Trail, Whittier police officials said in a written statement. He suffers from dementia and other medical problems and did not have his medication with him.
Concerned family members reported the man missing, officials said.
Metzler was found unharmed at a relative’s home Sunday, police said.

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Woman guilty of murder in husband’s 2007 shooting death in South Whittier

SOUTH WHITTIER >> Nearly seven years after a woman claimed she accidentally shot her husband to death at their Whittier home, a jury convicted her of murder Friday following her second trial.
The Norwalk Superior Court jury deliberated for less than two days before finding Linda Gwozdz, 57, guilty of second-degree murder for the April 26, 2007, slaying of then-husband Patrick Duffey, 50, Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Robert Villa said. The jury also found true the special allegation that she personally discharged a firearm during the crime, resulting in death.
Duffey was shot twice in the head, officials said.
Even following conviction, however, some key questions remain unanswered.
“She never expressed what the motive was,” Villa said. “She said he was her best friend.”
Duffey’s life was insured for $300,000, but through a judge’s ruling, the money went to the couple’s two sons, even though Gwodz was listed as the primary beneficiary, the Clarion Ledger in Mississippi reported. A death certificate provided to the insurance company listed Duffey’s cause of death as homicide due to multiple gunshots wounds.
Gwozdz faces up to 40 years to life in prison when she returns to court for sentencing March 9, according to Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Sarah Ardalani.
A previous murder trial ended in a mistrial January after the jury was unable to reach a unanimous verdict, Villa said.
The fatal shooting took place about 2:50 p.m. at the couple’s home in the 15800 block of Sharon Hill Drive, in an unincorporated county area just south of Whittier, officials said. The couple’s two children were at school at the time.
Gwozdz herself called 9-1-1 to report the shooting.
“In the 9-1-1 call, she says he was teacher her how to shoot a gun, and the gun accidentally went off,” Villa said.
“But the evidence doesn’t really support that that’s what happened,” the prosecutor said. “It looked like he was sleeping on the couch.”
Detectives from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau interviewed Gwozdz the day of the shooting, and several times after in the years that followed, Villa said. In the meantime, she moved to Mississippi and re-married.
There was no documented history of domestic violence between Gwozdz and Duffey, Villa said.
Gwozdz story changed each time she was interviewed, Villa said. She first stated her husband was lying on the couch when the gun went off. She later said he had been sitting on the couch and lied down just as she aimed the .38-caliber revolver at the couch and inadvertently fired.
After several years of persistent investigation, detectives presented their findings to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, resulting in the filing of a murder case in May of 2012.
Authorities extradited Gwozdz back to Los Angeles County from Mississippi shortly after the case was filed, Ardalani said.
Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies arrested her June 7, 2012, according to county booking records. She was held in lieu of $2 million bail prior to her conviction.
— Staff Writer Stephanie Baer contributed to this report.
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UPDATED: 18-year-old Whittier man killed in fiery freeway crash in Industry mourned


INDUSTRY >> Coroner’s officials have identified an 18-year-old college student from Whittier who died in a fiery crash on the 60 Freeway in Industry last week after his disabled car was rear-ended by a cargo van
Johnny Gonzalez Jr. died Jan. 13 following the 10:36 p.m. crash on the westbound 60 Freeway, just east of Fairway Drive, Los Angeles County Department of Coroner Assistant Chief of Operations Ed Winter said.
Coroner’s reports indicated Gonzalez called his father and said his car had suddenly died, Winter said.
“He told his father he couldn’t get his car to the right. The call suddenly ended,” Winter said.
A 2013 Chevrolet Express van travelling at about 70 mph slammed into Gonzalez’s disabled 1996 Toyota Corolla, which was stalled in the left-hand lane, California Highway Patrol Officer Rodrigo Jimenez said.
The force of the impact pushed both vehicles across the westbound traffic lanes of the freeway, and caused both to catch fire, the officer said.
Paramedics pronounced Gonzalez dead at the scene, officials said. He would have turned 19 two days later.
The driver of the van, a 36-year-old Menifee man, suffered an apparently minor injury and declined to be taken to a hospital.
The crash remained under investigation by the Baldwin Park office of the CHP, however Jimenez said intoxicated driving was not initially suspected.
An autopsy determined Gonzalez died from “traumatic injuries,” and not as a result of the fire, Winter said. The death was ruled accidental.
The young man’s sudden loss hit family and friends hard, Gonzalez’s father Johnny Gonzalez Sr. said.
The young Gonzales grew up in Los Angeles before moving to Whittier about 10 years ago, his father said. He graduated from California High School in Whittier last year and was studying at Rio Hondo College.
“Johnny can make anybody smile,” Gonzalez Sr. said. “Johnny could make friends with anyone. He has a big heart.”
Gonzalez Sr. said he was amazed to see how many people paid respects to his son at a candlelight memorial at California High School last week.
Gonzalez Jr. enjoyed baseball, basketball and took part in his high school’s golf team during his senior year, his father said. He grew up playing travel baseball and basketball.
He collected miniature skateboards, which he constantly fidgeted with, Gonzalez said.
An online fund to help the family with burial costs has been set up at
Gonzalez Jr. was to be buried in a private ceremony.

PHOTO of Johnny Gonzalez Jr., 18, of Whittier (Courtesy)

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Whittier checkpoint nets 1 DUI arrest, 10 citations

WHITTIER >> Police arrested one alleged drunken driver and issued 10 citations during an overnight checkpoint in Whittier, officials said Saturday.
Officers screened 1,216 drivers during the checkpoint, which was held from 7:30 p.m. Friday to 3 a.m. Saturday on Whittier Boulevard at Redman Avenue, just east of the 605 Freeway, Whittier police Lt. Aaron Ruiz said.
Two drivers were given field sobriety tests, however only one of them was ultimately arrested for DUI, he said.
Officers cited nine people for driving without licenses and issued one additional “miscellaneous” citation, Ruiz said.
Police impounded two cars, one of them for 30 days, he added.

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Police checkpoint planned tonight in Whittier

WHITTIER >> Police plan to check motorists for sobriety and valid licenses at a checkpoint tonight in Whittier.
The checkpoint will take place at an undisclosed location within the city between 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3 a.m. Saturday, Whittier police officials said in a written statement.
“Over the course of the past three years, DUI collisions have claimed three lives and resulted in 135 injury crashes harming 188 of our friends and neighbors,” Sgt. David Elizarraras said.
Funding for tonight’s checkpoint is being provided by a grant from the California Office of Traffic Safety, through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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Woman sought in connection with South Whittier stabbing

SOUTH WHITTIER >> Deputies sought a woman Thursday on suspicion of stabbing her former roommate during an argument at a South Whittier home, authorities said.
The stabbing took place about 12:30 p.m. Wednesday in the 11800 block of Eagan Drive, in the unincorporated county area just south of Whittier, Los Angeles County sheriff’s Lt. Eric Smitson said.
The ex-roommate, a woman in her late 20s, showed up at the home and became involved in an argument with a current resident, a man in his 50s, Smitson said.
“The female pulled a knife and stabbed the victim once in the chest,” Smitson said.
The wounded man was able to call for help himself, and paramedics took him a hospital with injuries not believed to be life-threatening, the lieutenant said. The woman had fled the scene by the time deputies arrived.
Thought he woman’s identity was known to detectives, they withheld it Thursday as they continued seeking her.
The case is being handled by detectives from the sheriff’s Norwalk Station.

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Azusa woman killed in East Whittier head-on crash mourned


EAST WHITTIER >> Loved ones are devastated by the death of a vivacious Azusa woman who was struck and killed by a wrong-way driver in East Whittier early on New Year’s Day.
Corina Villarreal, 54, died in Thursday’s 1:30 a.m. crash on First Avenue, just north of 0103_NWS_WDN-L-FATALCRASHFOLOCandlelight Drive, in the unincorporated county area just east of Whittier, according to Los Angeles County coroner and California Highway Patrol officials.
Matthew George Tapia, 24, of Santa Ana also died in the crash, according to the CHP. Villarreal and Tapia were each the lone occupants of their vehicles.
Villarreal drove a Lexus IS 250 north on First Avenue just prior to the crash, CHP officials said in a written statement. Tapia drove a 1999 Isuzu trooper south. The SUV drifted over the double-yellow line and collided head-on into the Lexus. The cause of the crash remains under investigation.
Family members gathered Friday at her home to mourn their loss.
“Everybody’s devastated. She walked into a room and just brightened it every time. She had a great way about her. She always looked at the positives.”
Ernesto Villarreal said his cousin had been celebrating the New Year with a friend in the Whittier area and had car trouble, he said. She was borrowing her friend’s car when the crash occurred.
Corina Villarreal grew in Azusa, where she spend most of her life, and attended Azusa High School, family members said. She also lived in La Mirada for a period during a former marriage.
0103_NWS_WDN-L-FATALCRASHFOLO2She worked for Southern California Edison, Ernesto Villarreal said.
Corina Villarreal had no children, but was very close with her nieces and nephews, family said. She was an avid fan of the Raiders and Dodgers, who enjoyed going to the stadium or riding on the back of Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
“She enjoyed life, and she wanted those around her to have the same level of joyfulness.”
Cousin Renee Villarreal said Corina Villarreal left behind friends from coast to coast.
“She was a very personable person and she was able to touch a lot of lives,” she said. 0103_NWS_WDN-L-FATALCRASHFOLO3“She always made you feel like you were important and special, and she would give you the shirt off her back.”
A fund to help the Villarreal family with funeral costs has been set up online on at


TOP – Photo of crash scene by Troy Case, Correspondent

2nd FROM TOP: –  Photo of Corina Villarreal (courtesy).

3rd FROM TOP: Corina Villarreal, 54, of Azusa, died early Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, in a head-on collision in East Whittier after another vehicle crossed into the wrong direction of travel on First Avenue, slamming into the car she was driving. Villarreal (left) is pictured in this undated photo with boyfriend Joe Chubbs. (Courtesy)

BOTTOM:  Corina Villarreal, 54, of Azusa, died early Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, in a head-on collision in East Whittier after another vehicle crossed into the wrong direction of travel on First Avenue, slamming into the car she was driving. Villarreal (left) is pictured in this undated photo with friends Gina Morga (center) and Terri Morga (right).

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Azusa woman, Santa Ana man killed in head-on crash in East Whittier

EAST WHITTIER >> An Azusa woman and a Santa Ana man died early New Year’s Day in a head-on crash on First Avenue in East Whittier, authorities said.
The collision took place about 1:30 a.m. on First Avenue, near Candlelight Drive, in the unincorporated county area, California Highway Patrol officials said in a written statement.
Corina Villareal, 54, and Matthew George Tapia, 24, both died at the scene, Los Angeles County Department of Coroner Lt. David Smith said.
Coroner’s officials did not have cities of residence listed for the dead, however CHP officials described Villareal as an Azusa resident and Tapia as a Santa Ana resident.
Villareal was driving a 2007 Lexus IS 250 northbound on First Avenue when a 1999 Isuzu Trooper being driven south on First Avenue crossed over into northbound lanes, CHP officials said.
“Just north of Candlelight Drive, Tapia drifted to his left, crossing the double yellow lines into the No. 1 lane of northbound First Avenue, directly in front of Villareal’s path of travel,” according to the CHP statement. “Both vehicles collided head on just north of Candlelight Drive.”
It was not clear Thursday if intoxication may have played a role in the crash, officials said. The collision remained under investigation by officers from the CHP’s Santa Fe Springs office.

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