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LAPD: Suspect in 'serial' killings of homeless men in custody for a fourth killing

Police have identified a suspect in the recent "serial" killings of three homeless men in Los Angeles. The 33-year-old they say matches the profile of the shooter was already in custody for another killing this week during a robbery in a Southern California suburb.

The four killings happened over four consecutive days.

The slayings of the homeless men prompted officials to issue regional warnings to people living on the streets of the nation's second-largest city, which faces a glaring homelessness crisis.

Officials sounded the alarm Friday about a "serial killer" targeting homeless people across a 12-mile stretch from South Los Angeles to the northern part of the city's downtown. They described the suspect they were seeking as a man seen driving a dark-colored sedan.

It turned out the person they were seeking was already in custody, they said.

On Thursday, Beverly Hills police had arrested Jerrid Joseph Powell, of Los Angeles, during a traffic stop, officials said in a news conference Saturday evening. His physique and his dark-colored sedan matched descriptions of the suspect at all three homicide scenes, and the handgun police believe was used in the killings was recovered in his car, Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told reporters.

Powell is accused of killing the homeless men over four days, on Sunday, Nov. 26, and the following Monday and Wednesday. Moore identified the victims as Jose Bolanos, 37, who was found dead Sunday near the intersection of 110th Street and Vermont Avenue in South Los Angeles; Mark Diggs, 62, who was shot and killed at about 4:45 a.m. Monday at the 600 Block of Mateo Street, downtown near the L.A. River; and an unnamed 52-year-old man who was found dead around 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday near Avenue 18 and Pasadena Avenue, just north of downtown.

On the Tuesday between the second and third killings, police said, Powell trekked to San Dimas, a suburb 30 miles east of downtown, and killed a county employee during a home invasion. Powell is expected to be charged on Monday in the fatal shooting of Nicholas Simbolon, 42, a father of two.

Police did not identify a motive in the killings of the homeless men.

The string of slayings prompted law enforcement officials Friday to warn homeless people to take precautions and use shelters or to stay with family or friends. People staying outdoors, the LAPD said, should avoid being alone and stay in well-lit areas.

District Attorney George Gascón said earlier this week that a dedicated task force had been seeking "to uncover the identity of a potential serial killer preying on the most vulnerable in our community."

On Saturday, Gascón said the case involving the killings of homeless men will undergo a review by prosecutors. "We have a very good understanding not only of the case but the evidence available," he said.

Powell was detained by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department on a $2 million bond.

Police used a controversial license plate scanner to identify Powell’s car. Sheriff Robert Luna described it as an “automatic license plate reader system” that allowed Beverly Hills police to identify Powell’s car.

“We know there’s controversy out there about the usage of this system,” he said. “But let me tell our community something: If we did not enter that plate into this system, this individual that we believe is responsible for at least four murders may have been out there and re-offended. He was victimizing, as was said, some of our most vulnerable community members."

Los Angeles has by far the largest unsheltered homeless population in the country, with a majority of the county's estimated 75,500 unhoused residents living outdoors, in cars and other places unfit for human habitation, according to the Los Angeles County's Homeless Services Authority.

Mayor Karen Bass coordinated with the county's Homeless Services Authority with the city's Housing Authority and Housing Department to inform people in nearby areas about the string of chilling attacks.

The homelessness crisis in California – and around the nation – has created a dangerous situation in which thousands of people's physical safety is threatened every day, simply because they cannot afford any housing, said Eric Tars, senior policy director for the National Homelessness Law Center.

On Saturday, Tars partly blamed elected officials and policymakers who have voted against creating more affordable housing for the killings.

"They have it in their power to get people off the streets and out of harm's way, but they’ll misdirect our attention back to the one who pulled the trigger and claim justice is done if they’re caught and convicted," Tars told USA TODAY. "But there’s no justice while our fellow Americans are still at risk, living on the streets."

Unhoused more at risk of violence

The killings come as an increasing number of homeless sweeps in Los Angeles have pushed more unhoused people to live in low-lying, out-of-the-way areas in hopes of avoiding law enforcement intervention, according to housing advocates. In Los Angeles, people living on the streets report that the threat of violence is a top concern, particularly for cisgender women, transgender women and nonbinary people.

This has been the case for Jeffrey Tropp, who identifies as LGBTQ. Over more than four years living unhoused in Los Angeles, Tropp has faced the threat of being stabbed multiple times, they told USA TODAY.

Now, after three unhoused people were fatally shot in a single week, the homeless community downtown is "absolutely terrified," Tropp said.

"There's no way to escape it," they said. "I don't think there's any way for most housed people to truly know how it feels to have a very real possibility of death and no way to escape from it."

Jeffrey Tropp sits at their desk inside their motel room on August 2, 2023. They spoke of being fond of dinosaurs and having many dinosaur figurines in their room. Tropp is part of the Inside Safe unhoused program in Los Angeles.
Jeffrey Tropp sits at their desk inside their motel room on August 2, 2023. They spoke of being fond of dinosaurs and having many dinosaur figurines in their room. Tropp is part of the Inside Safe unhoused program in Los Angeles.

Besides the risk of interpersonal violence, unhoused people also face getting hit by cars, especially at night when it's dark, according to Margot Kushel, a professor at the University of California San Francisco whose research focuses on unsheltered homelessness.

Los Angeles officials have urged everyone in need to take advantage of homeless shelters, stay in well-lit populated areas and remain alert to their surroundings. This year, Bass has also ramped up efforts to get people from the streets inside temporary hotel shelter programs, known as Inside Safe. More than 10,000 people have come inside in 2023. But critics say the sweeps of encampments disrupt homeless communities by forcing people who don't want a hotel room to move their tents frequently.

Once, when Tropp feared for their safety while living in a tent, they relocated from an urban area to a residential area, to avoid risking confrontations with people with weapons. But that led to neighborhood residents calling the police on them, Tropp said.

"I had to deal with being woken up by police almost every night when I first started setting up on a residential street at night because they 'had to respond to every call,'" Tropp said.

Most unhoused people are too nervous to be in residential areas for exactly that reason, according to Tropp.

"Most people in downtown LA don't have that luxury," Tropp said, referring to the more populated areas for unhoused people targeted in the string of recent killings.

The homicides are among a growing number of murders across the country targeting unhoused people.

Last month in Southern California, a man recorded a video of himself fatally shooting a homeless person who had thrown a shoe at him after he was awakened while sleeping on a sidewalk, prosecutors said.

Jeffrey Tropp sits at their desk inside their motel room on August 2, 2023. They spoke of being fond of dinosaurs and having many dinosaur figurines in their room. Tropp is part of the Inside Safe unhoused program in Los Angeles.
Jeffrey Tropp sits at their desk inside their motel room on August 2, 2023. They spoke of being fond of dinosaurs and having many dinosaur figurines in their room. Tropp is part of the Inside Safe unhoused program in Los Angeles.

Las Vegas police investigating fatal shooting of homeless people

One person was killed and four others were wounded in a shooting Friday evening in an encampment where homeless people were living, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police said in a Dec. 2 release. The shooting happened at around 5:35 p.m. near the intersection of Sandhill Road and Charleston Boulevard, just northwest of the Las Vegas Strip.

All victims in the shooting were men, police said. One man was pronounced dead at the University Medical Center of Southern Nevada Trauma Center. Another man was in critical condition while the other three were listed as stable.

Police have not released the identities of the victims and an official declined to state whether authorities suspect the shooting was linked to the deaths in Los Angeles.

Police have asked anyone with information about the shooting to contact LVMPD's homicide bureau at 702-828-3521 or Homicide@LVMPD.com.

Like other cities in the western U.S., Las Vegas has a large unsheltered homeless population, according to the Nevada Homeless Alliance. On a single night in 2023, there were approximately 6,500 people experiencing homelessness in southern Nevada, with the majority living unsheltered, the group says.

Contributing: Thao Nguyen, USA TODAY; Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Homeless killings in Los Angeles: Police search for 'serial killer'