LOS ANGELES (AP) — A Texas man was arrested on suspicion of killing three people and seriously injuring four in a 2½-week-long string of attacks targeting sleeping homeless men in Southern California, Los Angeles police said Tuesday, while authorities in Houston investigated him for the disappearance of his aunt and uncle.
Ramon Escobar, 47, who was believed homeless himself, likely targeted victims to rob them, Los Angeles police Capt. William Hayes told reporters. He said Escobar is from El Salvador and is a "deportable felon" but did not provide additional information.
Federal immigration authorities didn't respond to a request for more details on his status but generally "deportable felon" means he was in the country illegally and had a felony conviction.
Hayes called Escobar a "violent predator" and said investigators believe he drove to California from Houston after his relatives disappeared and attacked the men in Los Angeles and suburban Santa Monica beginning Sept. 8. Detectives seized a wooden baseball bat and bolt cutters that police believe he used to carry out the attacks on random victims.
Escobar was arrested Monday after a man sitting on a sidewalk was beaten unconscious and robbed of some of his possessions, Santa Monica police said. That victim remains in coma.
Police will ask prosecutors on Wednesday to charge Escobar with three counts of murder and four counts of attempted murder, officials said.
He's being held without bail, and it wasn't immediately known if he has an attorney who can speak on his behalf. A call to U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement seeking more information on Escobar's immigration status was not returned.
Escobar is a person of interest in the disappearances late last month of 60-year-old Dina Escobar and her brother, 65-year-old Rogelio Escobar, Houston police said in a statement.
Dina Escobar's burned van was found in Galveston, Texas, a few days after she went looking for her brother. She was last seen Aug. 28, two days after her brother vanished, the statement said.
Texas authorities said they want to talk to him about the disappearances.
Escobar spent five years in prison for robbery starting in the mid-1990s, Hayes said. Records in Texas show Escobar has had arrests for vehicle burglary, trespassing, failure to stop, public intoxication and two assaults, most recently in November 2017. That case was described as a misdemeanor.
Dina Escobar's daughter, Ligia Salamanca, told KTRK-TV in Houston earlier Tuesday that her cousin, Ramon Escobar, had never come across as violent and wasn't a source of trouble for the family.
"She loved him as she would a son," Salamanca said of her mother's devotion to Ramon Escobar.
Salamanca said he had been looking for work and needed a place to stay, so he was taken in by his uncle, who went missing days later.
Investigators believe Escobar was the man who used a baseball bat to bash the heads of three homeless men sleeping on downtown Los Angeles streets before dawn on Sept. 16, police said in a statement. Two died.
He was recorded on surveillance video ransacking their pockets and belongings.
Two homeless men sleeping on the beach were bludgeoned in the head early on Sept. 8 and Sept. 10, leaving one in critical condition, officials said.
Another man who apparently was sleeping on the beach was found dead under the Santa Monica Pier on Sept. 20. Steven Ray Cruze Jr., 39, of San Gabriel, had been beaten to death.
Authorities at first described him as homeless, but family and friends said the father of two, who loved to fish at the pier, worked boats in neighboring Marina del Rey and sometimes camped out under the pier to avoid the long commute home.
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Associated Press writers Robert Jablon and John Antczak in Los Angeles, David Warren in Dallas and researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this report.