By KATE MATHER, RICHARD WINTON, MATT STEVENS – Los Angeles Times
Authorities are investigating whether the killings of three people Sunday morning in a San Fernando Valley crime rampage are linked to a rash of recent shootings on Los Angeles-area roadways, including some that were originally considered unrelated episodes of road rage.
Detectives have identified at least six shootings over the last five months that bear striking similarities to the violence Sunday, when someone in a sport utility vehicle opened fire on people with a shotgun in three encounters.
Last week, a woman was seriously hurt when her car was fired upon with a shotgun as she got off the 5 Freeway in Atwater Village. A day later, a man was found dead, slumped over the wheel of his truck at a Pacoima intersection, his engine still running. On Saturday, another person was shot and wounded by a shotgun blast while traveling on the 60 Freeway near South El Monte.
Detectives also are looking at several other shootings, including one on California 14 in Rosamond, another on the 210 Freeway in Sylmar as well as an incident Friday in West Hollywood, authorities said.
The Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that detectives are investigating unsolved shootings as part of the inquiry into Sunday’s killings. But they also stressed the investigations are in their early stages and did not provide details about the evidence detectives have discovered so far.
Authorities have yet to arrest anyone on suspicion of Sunday’s shootings but described a man they took into custody late that day as a suspect. That man, identified by police as Alex Hernandez, 34, was booked on suspicion of fatally shooting two dogs Saturday and remains in jail in lieu of $1-million bail.
LAPD Cmdr. Andrew Smith said detectives with the department’s Robbery-Homicide Division “have been working literally around the clock,” looking for witnesses and video evidence that could help crack the case.
“What kind of monster would do something like this — get up and start driving around and shooting people at random?” Smith said. “Until we have this entire thing wrapped up … we’re not going to stand down.”
An intense investigation began early Sunday, after two women and a man were killed within an hour in the Valley. The shootings began just before 6 a.m. Sunday, when the gunman opened fire on a family of five driving in the 1400 block of Celis Street to the nearby Santa Rosa Catholic Church. A 23-year-old woman was killed and her parents were critically injured, police said. Her two siblings suffered minor injuries, possibly from glass or metal fragments.
At 6:35 a.m., a 29-year-old man walking near the Sylmar Recreation Center was shot and killed. Ten minutes later, a woman — identified by relatives as Gloria Esperanza Tobar, 59 — was gunned down as she was waiting for a friend before church.
Detectives said all the victims were hit with shotgun fire and that the gunman’s vehicle was described as a tan or gold SUV.
Investigators with an animal cruelty task force realized that the suspect and vehicle description matched that of a man wanted in connection with the fatal shooting of two dogs the day before, Smith said. Details of that incident, including where in the Valley it occurred, were not clear.
But sources familiar with the investigation said the dogs’ owners told police they recognized the person who killed the animals as a man whose tan SUV broke down in front of their house a week before. The pet owners told police the man identified himself only by first name, Alex, said the sources, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss details of the investigation.
By late Sunday morning, detectives had put Hernandez’s Kismet Avenue home in Sylmar under surveillance, sources said.
One of the clues for police, the sources said, was that a tan SUV parked at Hernandez’s home had a side mirror repaired with duct tape. Evidence indicated that the vehicle used in the Valley killings had a mirror damaged by the gunfire, the sources said.
SWAT officers arrested Hernandez later that night and a gun was recovered at the home, Smith said. Sources identified the weapon as a shotgun.
A woman at his home declined to talk to a Times reporter Monday.
Courts records showed Hernandez has had run-ins with the law. In May 2004, he was sentenced to three years of formal probation after pleading no contest to possession for sale of a controlled substance. The charges stemmed from a traffic stop in which an officer found methamphetamine and an unregistered .22-caliber handgun, court records show.
Two years later, according to court records, Hernandez pleaded no contest to one count of felony possession of a controlled substance — meth — and a firearm. The firearm was described in court records as a loaded shotgun.
LAPD records show Hernandez was arrested June 15 on suspicion of assault. But prosecutors declined to file charges in part because there were no independent witnesses, LAPD sources said.
The type of weapon used in the Valley killings could be a key link in the investigation into the roadway shootings, officials said.
“It is not a common occurrence to use a shotgun to shoot into a car; it is much more common to use a handgun,” said Lt. John Corina, a supervisor in the sheriff’s homicide unit, which is also investigating some of the shootings.
In at least two of the incidents, investigators say, a shotgun was fired from a gold SUV.
On Aug. 14, a 48-year-old man was wounded when an SUV pulled alongside the vehicle in which he was riding and fired four blasts from a shotgun, Kern County sheriff’s officials said.
A week later, a couple driving home Friday from Universal City noticed a tan or gold SUV alongside them, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Sgt. Richard Bowman said. They briefly lost sight of the vehicle, but later saw the SUV driving behind them, with its lights off, Bowman said.
At Santa Monica Boulevard and Gardner Street, the SUV pulled up next to their vehicle and opened fire. The couple were not hit, but their Toyota was damaged by three shotgun blasts, Bowman said.
Smith said LAPD investigators were looking at the timing of the shootings and where they occurred for possible links.
“What the detectives will do is look back in time and look at the shootings that occurred and see if there’s anything with a similar M.O. or set of circumstances,” he said. “They’ll have people to dig back as far as it takes.”
Times staff writers Cindy Chang and Ruben Vives contributed to this report.