A transient from Texas, Ramon Escobar, charged with three counts of murder and five counts of attempted second-degree robbery appeared in court and did not enter a plea Wednesday afternoon.
The case was continued until Nov. 8, and public defender John Montoya's request that the defendant not be filmed due to identity issues was granted by the court.
Along with the aforementioned charges, Escobar, 47, also faces special circumstance allegations of multiple murders and murder during the commission of a robbery and faces a possible maximum sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole or death if convicted as charged, according to the LA County District Attorney's Office.
Recovered evidence--including a baseball bat and boltcutters allegedly used as weapons--link the transient from Texas to seven attacks on men while they were asleep outdoors in Santa Monica and downtown Los Angeles, police said Tuesday.
Escobar has been jailed on a no bail hold since his arrest Monday morning after an attack in Santa Monica which hospitalized a homeless man with critical injuries.
He is also considered a person of interest in connection with the disappearance of two relatives in Texas, Houston police have confirmed. The department is sending a detective team to Los Angeles to follow up, Capt. Hayes said.
In the past two decades, after being sentenced to prison in Texas for burglary, Escobar was deported to his native El Salvador half a dozen times between 1997 and 2011, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
"After illegally reentering the U.S. following his most-recent removal Alberto-Escobar filed an appeal of his immigration case with the Board of Immigration Appeals in June 2016, which the courts granted in December 2016. ICE released him from custody on an Order of Supervision in January 2017 pursuant to the court’s decision," the federal agency stated in an email response to an inquiry from NBC News.
"What puzzles the whole family is how was he able to slip through our system six different times?" stated Cathy Smith, aunt of victim Steven Cruze. "Our family can't help but think this was a wrongful death," she texted.
The ICE statement did not disclose the details of Escobar's immigration case. But based on the information released, it appears Escobar was freed on bond while his pending case was ordered reopened, said immigration attorney Gustavo Mora, who is based in Los Angeles and not involved in the Escobar case, but provided analysis at the request of NBC4. It's not apparent if the underlying case was ever resolved.
Escobar has been seeking asylum, police disclosed. This is not unusual among immigrants from Central America, according to Mora.
Prior deportation orders and felony convictions do not necessarily disqualify an asylum application, Mora said, unless the conviction is for a crime serious enough to indicate "moral turpitude."
Records indicate Escobar was arrested again in Texas last November, with a conviction this past May for misdemeanor assault causing injury. There is no indication whether or not that triggered another deportation order.
After Escobar's arrest this week for murder, ICE issued a detainer to take custody if he were to be released. For now, he remains jailed on a no bail hold.
Police believe Escobar left Texas August 30, driving a Honda CRX on the Interstate 10 corridor, and arrived in Los Angeles six days later. Hayes said law enforcement agencies along that route are being alerted to the possibility Escobar may have committed crimes on his journey.
"Nobody in their right mind would do something as vicious as this," Hayes said in response to a question asking if Escobar's behavior may have been affected by lack of medication for mental illness. "But it still doesn't take the criminal culpability away from it."
After two attacks on three homeless men September 16 in Los Angeles, LAPD released security camera video of a suspect walking with a distinctive bow-legged gait. It was the gait of a man walking not far from the assault Monday in Santa Monica that caught the eye of a public safety officer and led to Escobar's arrrest, police said.
Police believe Escobar killed Steven Cruze, 39, of San Gabriel, who was found fatally beaten beneath the Santa Monica Pier last Thursday. Family said often stayed there after fishing late to avoid driving home and then driving back to the coast for work in the morning.
"He wasn't homeless," his father, Steven Cruze Sr., told NBC4 at a Friday evening vigil. "He just slept over here (under the pier) and went to work from here sometimes. He had a membership with a gym so could get up in the morning, go take a shower and go to work. He knows so many people on this pier, he felt safe."
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Cruze's murder followed the deaths of two homeless men who were beaten and robbed in downtown Los Angeles early on the morning of Sept. 16.
They were identified as Kelvin Williams, 59, and Bradon Ridout, 24. A third man who was attacked Tievon Harmon, 24, remains hospitalized with critical head trauma.
The first attack was at the northwest corner of Fifth and Flower streets, while the second and third happened on the south side of Wilshire Boulevard, just east of Flower Street, LAPD Capt. William Hayes said. All three victims were attacked while they slept, and the suspect went through their belongings before leaving the scene, Hayes said.