Judge Lifts Media Order on Photos in Accused Triple-Murderer's Case

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - A Superior Court judge today vacated an order barring the media from publishing photos taken in court of a man charged in a series of attacks on mostly homeless people that left three men dead and five others injured in Los Angeles and Santa Monica.

Responding to a court filing by the Los Angeles Times, Judge Gustavo Sztraicher ruled that images taken of Ramon Escobar, 47, from the time the jurist approved the media's request to photograph and videotape the hearing late Wednesday afternoon to when a deputy public defender raised an objection moments later were “lawfully obtained.”

The judge noted that the attorney who represented the defendant during his first court appearance did not initially object to the media's request, and did so only after the media outlets were given time to set up in the courtroom.

After the hearing, the judge had ordered the media not to disseminate any images of Escobar, including still photos, video footage and courtroom sketches, from the defendant's initial court appearance in response to the defense attorney's request to bar photo and video coverage of the hearing.

Attorney Dan Laidman, who said in court that the Associated Press had also joined in the request by the Times, argued that the order was “a presumptively unconstitutional prior restraint on speech.” He noted that photographs of Escobar had already been widely disseminated after being distributed predominantly by law enforcement officials in Texas, where Escobar is a person of interest in the disappearance of his aunt and uncle in Houston.

Deputy Public Defender Jennifer Friedman -- who was not the attorney representing Escobar during Wednesday's court appearance -- objected to the judge's order being lifted, saying the defense worried that the ongoing investigation could be tainted by the dissemination of recent images of Escobar. She also argued that the photography was unlawful because the judge had never signed the media request to photograph the hearing.

Escobar is being held without bail while awaiting arraignment Nov. 8 on three counts of murder, five counts of attempted murder and four counts of second-degree robbery, with special circumstance allegations of multiple murders and murder during a robbery. Prosecutors have yet to decide whether to seek the death penalty against him.

Escobar was arrested Monday in Santa Monica following the early morning assault of a man in the 1500 block of Seventh Street.

Escobar is a native of El Salvador who was deported to his homeland six times between 1997 and 2011, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Police said Tuesday that Escobar had been linked to a total of seven attacks:

-- a Sept. 8 assault of a person who was sleeping on the beach in Santa Monica, with the victim treated and released from a hospital;

-- a Sept. 10 attack of a man also sleeping on the Santa Monica beach in the same area, with the victim still in a coma;

-- the Sept. 16 attacks of three homeless people in downtown Los Angeles, with two of those victims -- Kelvin Williams, 59, and Branden Ridout, 24, both of Los Angeles -- later dying and the other remaining hospitalized in critical condition and on life support;

-- the Sept. 20 fatal beating of a man, 39-year-old Steven Cruze Jr. of San Gabriel, under the Santa Monica Pier; and

-- the 7 a.m. Monday attack at Seventh Street and Colorado in Santa Monica, with that man remaining in a coma.

Escobar has since been linked to an eighth non-fatal attack that occurred Saturday in Los Angeles, accounting for the fifth attempted murder charge.

Police said detectives searched Escobar's SUV on Tuesday and seized a wooden baseball bat believed to have been used in the Sept. 16 attacks in downtown Los Angeles. Santa Monica police investigating Monday's attack found a pair of bolt cutters, believed to be the weapon used in that assault.

Los Angeles Police Department Capt. Billy Hayes said the attacks did not appear to be based on any hatred toward homeless people, even though all the victims except Cruze were apparently homeless.

“I think it was a crime of opportunity,” he said. “... It appears the motive in most of these cases was robbery.”

Hayes said Escobar was homeless himself, having recently arrived in the area from Texas in a 2004 black Honda CRV. He said Escobar arrived in the Southland on Sept. 5, three days before the attacks began.

Escobar is a person of interest in the disappearances in Houston of his aunt and uncle, Rogelio and Dina Escobar. Both went missing late last month, and police suspect foul play. Hayes said Escobar was questioned by police in Texas on Aug. 30, “and shortly after that it appears he fled the state of Texas.”

Hayes said Escobar served five years in prison from 1995-2000 in Texas for some type of burglary, and has subsequent arrests in 2017 and earlier this year on suspicion of assault and criminal trespassing.

The trio of downtown Los Angeles attacks occurred between 4 and 5 a.m. on Sept. 16, and the LAPD later released surveillance video of a man suspected in those beatings, which investigators said were carried out with a baseball bat. Investigators noted that the suspect walked with a distinctively bow-legged gait.

The first attack was at the northwest corner of Fifth and Flower streets, while the second and third happened on the south side of Wilshire Boulevard, just east of Flower Street, Hayes said.

All three victims were attacked while they slept, and the suspect went through their belongings before leaving the scene, Hayes said.

At about 6:30 a.m. Thursday, Cruze was found fatally beaten beneath the Santa Monica Pier. Although Cruze was initially described by authorities as homeless, his family said that was not the case.

His father, Steven Cruze Sr., told reporters his son was a commercial fisherman who sometimes slept under the pier before going to work in Marina del Rey.

“He had a membership with a gym so could get up in the morning, go take a shower and go to work,” the elder Cruz said. “He knows so many people on this pier, he felt safe.”

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