Police: Arrests made in '08 mass deaths in Calif.

Five people were shot to death more than three years ago in a homeless encampment beneath a Los Angeles-area freeway because of unpaid drug debts between one of the victims and an alleged gang member, police said Wednesday.

Long Beach police Chief Jim McDonnell announced the arrests of David Ponce, 31, and Max Rafael, 25 — alleged members of the Nuthood Watts criminal street gang. Both men are charged with five special-circumstance murders, one count each of kidnapping to commit another crime and conspiracy to commit a crime, along with gun and gang allegations, McDonnell said.

Both men are eligible for the death penalty. They're being held without bail. Rafael is expected to be arraigned Thursday and Ponce on Friday.

The November 2008 mass killings baffled investigators after the bodies of three men and two women were found on a Sunday morning in a seedy neighborhood of warehouses and apartment buildings. A phone tip led authorities to the bodies, which had been there at least a day.

Police said an ongoing feud between Ponce and Lorenzo Villicana, 44, over unpaid drug debts was the motive for the crimes.

"I'd like to make it clear that these victims were not targeted because they were homeless," McDonnell said. "This encounter stemmed from a personal vendetta of one of the suspects as the result of an ongoing dispute with one of the victims over narcotics.

A week before the slayings, Villicana was robbed. On the day of the murders, Ponce enlisted Rafael, and the two men recognized 41-year-old Hamid Shraifat as someone who knew Villicana and might be able to find him, said police Lt. Lloyd Cox. The men kidnapped Shraifat, who led them to the encampment where Villicana was, along with Frederick Neumeier, 53, Katherine Verdun, 24, and Vanessa Malaeplue, 34, a mother of six, authorities said.

Police believe Villicana was shot first and the other victims were killed to ensure there would be no witnesses to the crime.

"Within a few weeks of it, we had a theory that this was a personal incident between the suspect and one of the victims and it was a matter of proving that theory whether it was true or not," Cox said.

Ponce and Rafael were charged Wednesday. News of their arrests comes a day after a suspected serial killer was charged in the stabbing deaths of four homeless men in nearby Orange County over the past month. The timing was pure coincidence, officials said, as police were waiting for prosecutors to file charges.

The Long Beach killings happened in an area known as a homeless encampment and drug hangout in the shadow of two intersecting freeways.

Police said they received very few phone calls in the days following the killings. The anonymous tipster eventually was contacted, but he had no connection to the crime or the people involved, Cox said.

Ponce, who has the words "Nut" and "Hood" tattooed below his eyes, also was charged with kidnapping and murder for a slaying in Lancaster two years ago. In addition, police believe he may be responsible for at least two other murders in Long Beach between 2000 and 2003.

Ponce has been in jail since August 2010 and he has faced prior weapons, narcotic and burglary charges. Rafael has been behind bars since last summer and also faced prior narcotic and weapons charges.