“He is a violent predator,” Hayes said, referring to Escobar. “He’s preying on innocent people. … In most of these cases, the victims were asleep and he went up and did it.”
Escobar is being held without bail and will be arraigned Wednesday, Hayes said, adding that investigators are seeking murder and attempted murder charges. It is not clear whether Escobar, who has not given any public comment, has an attorney.
Before coming to California several weeks ago, Escobar had been living in Houston where authorities are investigating the disappearance of his aunt and uncle, KTRK reported. Hayes said Escobar allegedly fled Houston late last month after being interviewed by police about his missing relatives, driving more than 1,500 miles to Los Angeles in his black 2004 Honda CRV. Authorities believe he arrived on Sept. 5.
Three days later, a homeless man was “violently assaulted” in Santa Monica while asleep on the beach, Capt. Wendell Shirley, head of the Santa Monica Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Division, said during the news conference. The coastal city is about a 20-minute drive west from Los Angeles.
The man survived, but had “no recollection” of what happened, Shirley said.
On Sept. 10, Santa Monica police were again called to the same stretch of beach and found an eerily similar scene. Another sleeping homeless man had been attacked and also sustained head injuries, Shirley said. The man remains in a coma, he said.
But right when it appeared the attacks had stopped, the unidentified assailant struck again. On Sept. 16, three homeless men sleeping outside buildings in downtown Los Angeles were assaulted in the same brutal manner, Hayes said. Two men died as a result of their injuries and the third remains in critical condition, he said.
This time, though, the attacks were captured on surveillance video — the first, and only, “viable lead,” Hayes said at a Sept. 17 news conference. The videos showed that the weapon was a baseball bat and the motive behind the attacks appeared to be robbery, Hayes said.
After “striking [the men] repeatedly,” Hayes said, the man, whom police believed to be homeless himself, was seen rifling through the victims’ personal belongings, “attempting to find items of value.”
Investigators then knew what the suspect looked like: a Hispanic or white male of medium build with dark black hair who was between 30 and 40 years old. They also noticed he was bowlegged, a condition that meant he walked with a “distinctive gait,” Hayes said.
Between the police releasing the description and Escobar’s arrest, the attacker would strike twice more, both times in Santa Monica. On Sept. 20, a man was found beaten to death beneath the famed Santa Monica Pier, Shirley said. While authorities initially identified the victim as homeless, he turned out to be a 39-year-old fisherman named Steven Ray Cruze Jr., whose family said he chose to sleep under the pier after an overnight fishing trip, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
Shortly before 7 a.m. Monday, there was another report of a homeless man found unconscious with blunt force trauma injuries to his head, police said.
While canvassing the nearby area, Hayes told reporters Tuesday an “astute” officer noticed a bowlegged man who matched the suspect’s description walking on the street. That man was Escobar, who was promptly arrested, Hayes said. Also recovered from Monday’s crime scene was a set of bolt cutters that authorities believe is the weapon in the most recent attack. Hayes said a search warrant executed for Escobar’s car turned up a wooden baseball bat linked to the beatings in Los Angeles.
Escobar’s connection to the missing persons cases in Houston also became apparent to California officials late Monday, Hayes said. In a tweet Tuesday morning, the Houston Police Department confirmed the arrest and wrote that its investigators “want to speak with” Escobar.
Rogelio Escobar, 65, was last seen Aug. 26, and his 60-year-old sister, Dina, was reported missing days later after going to look for him, KTRK reported. On Sept. 2, Dina Escobar’s white 2007 Chevrolet Uplander van was found abandoned on a beach in Galveston, Tex., according to the Houston Chronicle. It had been set on fire, the Chronicle reported.
Dina Escobar’s daughter, Lia Salamanca, told KTRK Tuesday, “It’s been very surreal.”
“And of course it gives me a fear for what happened to my mom and my uncle,” Salamanca said.
Ramon Escobar was arrested in Houston several times dating from the mid-1990s, authorities said. He spent five years in prison for burglary and has also been charged with assault and criminal trespass in separate cases, Hayes said.
During Tuesday’s news conference in Los Angeles, Hayes described Escobar as a “previously deported felon,” but noted that still needed to be verified.
Late Tuesday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement to The Washington Post that Escobar, an “unlawfully present Salvadoran national,” was “ordered removed from the U.S. by a federal immigration judge in February 1988 and had been removed to El Salvador six times between 1997 and 2011.” Escobar has six felony convictions for burglary and illegal reentry, according to ICE.
After his most recent removal, Escobar illegally reentered the country and filed an appeal of his immigration case in June 2016, according to ICE. The court granted the appeal and ICE released Escobar from custody last year.
Following the news of Escobar’s arrest, ICE announced it filed a detainer against him, meaning they would like to take him into custody “for immigration removal proceedings” whenever another law enforcement agency releases him.
While family members in Houston told local media that Escobar may be suffering from mental illness, Hayes declined to provide any details, only saying, “They’re violent crimes, nobody in their right minds would do something as vicious as this, but it still doesn’t take the criminal culpability away from it.”
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