Inside the hunt for a serial killer who murdered homeless men as they slept

A man suspected of slaughtering three homeless people on the streets of Los Angeles was finally identified – after police discovered he was already in custody for a fourth murder. Andrea Cavallier reports

Tuesday 05 December 2023 02:14 GMT
<p>Jerrid Joseph Powell </p>

Jerrid Joseph Powell

Four killings in four days. Three of them were homeless men. Hunted and shot to death as they slept on the streets of Los Angeles, a city facing a glaring homelessness crisis.

The suspected serial killer was finally identified as 33-year-old Jerrid Joseph Powell – after police discovered he was already in custody for another murder that happened during his alleged killing spree the same week.

Mr Powell was arrested on Wednesday for a botched robbery that left Nicholas Simbolon dead at his home in San Dimas, 28 miles east of Los Angeles.

By Saturday, investigators connected him to the murders of the three homeless men using his car and the murder weapon, a gun, that they found inside, Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore announced at a press conference.

“I am grateful that this suspect in this case is in custody and no longer a threat to our community,” Chief Moore said.

News of the arrest came just a day after authorities sounded the alarm of a possible “serial killer” targeting homeless people in the downtown area with city officials announcing an urgent plea for the homeless to be on high alert for the killer “preying on the unhoused.”

The suspected serial killer was identified as 33-year-old Jerrid Joseph Powell

No motive in the violent four-day killing spree has yet been determined.

Here’s what we know so far:

A timeline of the killings

Los Angeles authorities said the first victim – Jose Bolanos, 37 – was found dead with a gunshot wound around 3am on Sunday, 26 November on a couch outside in an alley in South Los Angeles.

Police Chief Michel Moore said at a news conference on Saturday that the man was killed “brutally and ruthlessly.”

On Monday, 27 November, Mark Diggs, 62, was shot and killed while pushing a shopping cart around 5am, near downtown, according to officials.

“It was chilling,” Mr Moore said Saturday, recalling video footage of the killing. “The coldblooded manner in which he walks up and shoots this individual without any hesitation, no interactions, and then leaves that location and — and we now know — to follow home an individual, a young father of two, who’s simply charging his car.”

The third homeless shooting occurred Wednesday about 2.30am, in the Lincoln Heights area, where the body of a 52-year-old man was found on a sidewalk where he had been sleeping.

Police did not immediately identify him pending notification of family.

All three men were asleep in the open areas — like alleys or sidewalks — when they were shot and killed, Chief Moore said. It was believed the suspect approached each victim as they slept, opened fire then walked away, according to Moore.

Surveillance video showing suspect

Early the next morning, Powell was arrested after the Beverly Hills Police Department conducted a vehicle stop.

Police believed the vehicle had been used during a robbery gone wrong in San Dimas the night before. It was also later connected to the three homicides, Moore said.

Less than 24 hours before Mr Powell was arrested, Nicholas Simbolon, 42, who was not homeless, was found dead in the garage of his home in the city of San Dimas, 28 miles east of Los Angeles, at 6.48pm.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna said it appeared the suspect had followed Simbolon home from an electric vehicle charging station about 12 miles from his house.

The suspect, later identified by police as Mr Powell, robbed Simbolon of “some personal belongings” before shooting him and fleeing.

How investigators connected the dots

At Saturday’s press conference, Chief Moore revealed how investigators connected the dots between the shootings.

He said investigators working on the cases of the fatal shootings discovered that the shell casings in the two cases on Monday and Wednesday were similar and that there had been a similar case on Sunday in another bureau.

One vehicle, a 2024 BMW M440 that was seen in footage all three shootings, was the key and a task force worked on locating it.

Sheriff Robert Luna said Beverly Hills police used what he described as an “automatic license plate reader system” to identify the car.

“We know there’s controversy out there about the usage of this system,” he noted.

“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."

Detectives then tracked it to Beverly Hills, where police had conducted the traffic stop and found the firearm inside, authorities said.

The vehicle was in custody of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office in connection with the San Dimas homicide. Inside the vehicle was a gun, the murder weapon used in all four homicides, Chief Moore said.

A car linked to the killings

Authorities do not believe there was any connection between Mr Powell and the victims.

The chief said authorities worked quickly to identify the suspect, aided by surveillance technology.

“Had they not had access to those tools, this individual, I am convinced, would still be moving about the city and the region, and killing individuals,” Moore added.

No motive has yet been determined.

‘Botched robbery’ victim was a father-of-two described as ‘gentle’

Nicholas Simbolon was a county employee known to his two young children, wife and family as “Noli.”

“I cannot even express my feelings, how devastated we are right now,” the victim’s aunt, Fanny Prentice, told KTLA’s Shelby Nelson.

Ms Prentice described the moment she heard the news about his death.

“He says, ‘Noli died,’ just like that,’” she said. “I mean, how can you hear this? Died? Noli died, what? I just saw him Saturday, said goodbye. That will be his last goodbye to me.”

Simbolon had worked as a business systems analyst for the superior court and in 2019 joined the IT staff of the chief executive’s office as a principal systems analyst, officials said.

“He was a prolific developer who had recently completed an innovative IT system to process our county’s budget process,” Kathyrn Barger, a member of the county Board of Supervisors, noted at a press conference.

“His coworkers describe him as a kind, gentle, and hardworking person.”

All of the men were killed outside

Suspected LA serial killer is a convicted felon with ‘violent background’

Authorities are asking anyone with information about the suspect, including other crimes he may have committed, to come forward.

LA County Sheriff Luna described Mr Powell as a convicted felon who had “violence in his background.”

“We want to make sure that anybody who may have been a victim of this individual that they come forward and notify your own police department,” Luna added.

Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón said they are working on further charges.

“The residents of Los Angeles County can breathe a sigh of relief today. Once a case is presented, our team will ensure that justice is served,” Gascón added.

Authorities said they can’t ignore the possibility that Mr Powell might have committed other crimes.

“Based on his criminal history, he didn’t just start doing this a week ago,’” Sheriff Luna said.

Mr Powell appeared in court on Monday. He will enter a plea in January. His bond is set at $2m, and was denied bail during his Monday court appearance.

The locations of the shootings

Killings push city officials to create a task force

The killings pushed city officials to create a task force to help get the homeless off the streets.

Los Angeles County is the nation’s most populous county, with about 10 million people, and was home to more than one in five of the nation’s homeless people, according to a 2022 federal tally. As of January, the last official count, more than 75,000 people were homeless across the county on any given night.

There was a push to open emergency shelters that are typically relegated to harsh weather to get as many homeless people off the street as possible.

The rate of homeless homicide has spiked this decade, data from the Los Angeles Police Department revealed – the total for this decade’s three years exceeds all of last decade’s, The Nation reported.

In 2017, 29 homicide victims in Los Angeles were homeless. By 2022, that number had jumped to 74.

“You have an epidemic of homelessness and living outside, and an epidemic of gun violence,” said Barbara DiPietro, senior policy director for the National Health Care for the Homeless Council.

“No one should be surprised to see that this is increasing. We throw vulnerable people to the wolves every day.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in