Five Tongans in the United States were among six alleged gang members accused of killing three people for “sport”.
The victims included two homeless men and a 15-year-old rival gang member.
Four others were also wounded in a series of shootings in Lennox, Carson and Gardena in 2015 and 2016. The accused went on trial Monday 28 August 2018.
Deputy District Attorney Heather Steggell told jurors during her opening statement that all six are charged with murder and are members of a “violent, ruthless criminal street gang” made up primarily of Pacific Islanders.
Like other gangs, they commit “graffiti, robberies, burglaries, assault with deadly weapons and murder, “but the difference with this gang, Steggell said is that they “will shoot anybody.”
Four of the seven victims were homeless people, including a husband and wife “ambushed” while going to pick up day-old doughnuts from a storekeeper willing to help.
“(They) go out hunting. It’s sport for them,” Steggell said of the alleged gang members.
Defendants Lebanon Fifita, 44, Fonuamana Fuahala, 25, Calvin Tonga, 26, Samisoni Lauaki, 21, Otoniel Ventura Leon, 28, and Taniela Fonoifua, 25, are each facing two counts of attempted murder in addition to at least one count of murder. Lauaki and Fonoifua are each charged with two murder counts.
The first victim was 40-year-old Sheila Gomez, who was sitting on a bench in Lennox Park with Henry Godines, 35, on Oct. 6, 2015, when Fonoifua and an unidentified man allegedly approached and then chased them. Gomez and
Godines were “minding their own business” and using an outlet in the park to charge their phones.
Gomez was shot to death, while Godines, a former gang member himself, survived, though he’s “pretty messed up” even after 11 surgeries, Steggell said.
Godines is expected to testify, though “he’s terrified and with good reason,” Steggell told the jury panel.
Next, on Oct. 17, 2015, 15-year-old Adalberto Salcedo was walking with his 16-year-old girlfriend to get a hamburger when he was shot to death in broad daylight in Carson.
“Adalberto made a bad decision that day,” Steggell said.
Lauaki and Fonoifua “saw a target” because Salcedo was wearing a red hat with a P, indicating gang allegiance. After gunning him down, they stood over him and “fired six more shots point blank into him,” according to Steggell.
The girlfriend, who ran for cover, “is a wreck .. she’s traumatized. She does not want to relive this,” Steggell said, preparing jurors for the girl’s reluctance on the stand.
The next round of shootings early in the morning of Nov. 9, 2015, were prompted by an afternoon confrontation the day before outside a Tongan church in Lennox. A man and two women were approached by a man on a bicycle who pointed a gun and asked if they were gang members. When they said no, he rode off.
“This is what sets everything in motion” because it was the “ultimate sign of disrespect” and a “green light for retaliation,” Steggell told jurors.
Five of the defendants, not including Fonoifua, went out “trolling the neighbourhood” in two vehicles — a gold Mercury Marquis driven by Tonga and a white van driven by Ventura-Leon — when they spotted Harry Coburn walking alone around midnight, talking on his phone to his dad. Coburn survived five bullet wounds from a 9mm handgun.
Then the men stopped to eat at a local gang hangout before heading back out. They chased after a man on a bicycle who managed to elude them and then were “so frustrated … that they shot the next people they saw. Homeless people just trying to get day-old doughnuts,” Steggell told the jury.
Fuahala and Fifita alleged gunned down 37-year-old Kenneth Campos with an SKS assault rifle and a 9mm handgun around 3am Nov. 9, 2015, at the back door to the doughnut shop. He died there, at the corner of 111th Street and Hawthorne Boulevard, and his wife, Sabrina Young, has had 12 surgeries as a result of injuries sustained in the attack, according to the prosecutor.
The last shooting was on Jan. 26, 2016, in Gardena. Fonoifua allegedly walked up to Hernesto Ruiz on Chardon Avenue in Gardena, gave the name of his gang and then fired multiple shots.
Ruiz refused to even look at a photo array in an attempt to identify the shooter.
However, bullet casings found in the yard outside of Fonoifua’s house after an unrelated shots fired call matched the casings from the Ruiz and Lennox Park shootings, according to investigators.
Steggell told the jury that evidence would include wiretapped calls, text messages and cellphone data to pinpoint the defendant’s locations at the time of the murders. She said all the men were guilty as charged.
“They exchange weapons. They’re all in it together. If they’re not shooters, they’re an active participant,” Steggell said, later repeating to jurors that the men share motive, intel and a “hunting mentality.”
Five of the six defense attorneys reserved the right to make opening statements later.
Mawuli Bakari told jurors that there will be “absolutely no evidence” that his client, Lauaki, was with the other men when the Nov. 9, 2015, shootings took place, only that he was at the restaurant eating with them.
“They want you to convict him because he’s there at (the restaurant),” Bakari said. “Because he may have been in the car.”
And though Lauaki is accused of being a shooter in the Salcedo killing, cellphone records don’t put him in Carson, but near his home in Hawthorne around the time of the shooting, Bakari said.
Bakari also pointed to a wiretapped call by Lauaki to his uncle in which he says he didn’t shoot anyone.
“He’s not a shooter of homeless people or anybody else,” Bakari said, though he said he did not deny that his client was in the gang. “Mr. Lauaki shouldn’t be found guilty.”
Testimony is expected to continue Tuesday.