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'Helpful' neighbor accused of killing four in series of home robberies

November 3, 2010 |  5:57 pm

On Hoover Street in Harbor Gateway, John Wesley Ewell was the guy neighbors turned to when they needed something fixed in their house.

“He’s a real nice guy. The kind of guy who would give the shirt off his back,” said neighbor Sheila Spinks, who said Ewell recently fixed a light sensor for her. “He didn’t want money for it.”

So when Denice Roberts was killed in her home on the block last month, Ewell was the last person anyone suspected.

But L.A. County prosecutors have charged the 53-year-old with killing Roberts and three other people in a month-long series of home robberies.

Authorities allege that Ewell cased neighborhoods in Hawthorne and South L.A., pretending to be a utility worker to gain entry to homes. Security surveillance tape shows a man carrying a briefcase being let into one of the homes.

Spinks said she and other neighbors can’t believe Ewell is responsible.

“Everyone is very surprised. His wife is devastated. It is a shock to everybody that knows him. He likes to talk to kids, tell them to stay out of trouble, stay on the right path,” she said. “This seems way out of his character.”

Ewell, who worked as a repairman with his father, was arrested Oct. 23 in connection with the killing of a couple in Hawthorne during a robbery. Leamon Turnage, 69, and his wife, Robyn, 57 were found strangled in their home Oct. 22.

Prosecutors allege that Ewell bound and gagged the couple before taking jewelry and other valuables. Leamon Turnage, a plumber and contractor, was killed in his garage. His wife was found inside the house.

On Wednesday, L.A. County prosecutors charged Ewell with two more killings, one in Hawthorne and the other on Ewell’s own block, two doors from his home.

He is accused of killing Hanna Morcos, 80, on Sept. 24 and Roberts, 53, on Oct. 13. Authorities said they connected him to the crimes in part because he used the Turnages’ credit cards to purchase gasoline at a local Shell station.

Video at the gas station helped identify him, they said.

Deputies also found property from the three victims in his possession, according to Los Angeles County Sheriff's Lt. Dave Coleman. “We believe that he posed as a utility company employee to gain entry to some of the homes,” Coleman said.

Investigators allege that Ewell forced his way into Morcos’ home and took jewelry and other valuables. Morcos, an 80-year-old Egyptian native and retired county employee, suffered a fatal heart attack while gagged and bound, investigators say. Morcos’ wife was asleep in the house at the time of the attack and was not injured.

“My grandfather was … determined to see the good in people,” Diana Seif said at a news conference with Sheriff Lee Baca after the killing. “He was very much like a candle in a dark room.”

The day after the news conference, Ewell allegedly killed the Turnages.

The series of killings has stunned residents on Hoover Street. Like the other victims, Roberts was bound and gagged before being strangled. Authorities said they didn’t know if Ewell and Roberts knew each other. But neighbors suspect they were at least friendly, because the neighborhood is fairly tight-knit.

Spinks said she can’t understand why someone would hurt Roberts.

“She’s a person who didn’t go nowhere, didn’t bother nobody. All she did was go to church every Sunday and stay in the house,” she said.

Ewell is described by sheriff’s detectives as a career criminal who since 1980s has been convicted of robbery, burglary and grand theft.

Before the slayings, he was charged in September with felony second-degree commercial burglary in connection with an incident at the Home Depot in Hawthorne.

He had apparently lived on Hoover Street for five years.

-- Ching-Ching Ni in Hawthorne and Richard Winton in Los Angeles

Crime in South L.A. over the last six months:

Violent crimes (111)
Property crimes (519)

Click to visit The Times' interactive Homicide Report