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Times coverage: Alleged home invasion killer evaded three-strikes law

Photo: John Wesley Ewell appears for arraignment in the courtroom of Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Keith L. Schwartz. The Harbor Gateway handyman is accused in the home invasion slayings of four people this fall. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

Several months ago, a string of home-invasion robbery killings that occurred within several weeks of each other dismayed the Hawthorne community. Homicide investigators were puzzled by the discovery of older men and women found in their homes, violently killed and with their belongings missing. Were they connected? Were the crimes the work of another serial killer?

It wasn't until late October that detectives got a break in the case. Investigators obtained video footage of the alleged killer using one of the victims' ATM cards to purchase gas.

On Oct. 23, John Wesley Ewell, a 53-year-old black man, was apprehended by sheriff deputies and subsequently charged with four counts of murder in connection with the deaths of Hanna Morcos, 80, Denice Roberts, 53, and married couple Leamon, 69, and Robyn Turnage, 57.

Ewell had an extensive criminal history that included two robbery convictions in the 1980s. In later years when he was arrested for new felony crimes, however the Los Angeles County district attorney's office decided on four occasions against seeking to use the full weight of the three-strikes law.

This year, after Ewell was arrested three times for allegedly stealing from Home Depot stores, a judge agreed to delay sending him to prison so he could take care of some medical problems. It was during that delay, authorities say, that Ewell robbed three homes and killed the victims.

Ewell pleaded not guilty to the murder charges Tuesday during a brief appearance at the Airport Courthouse.

Reporters Jack Leonard and Richard Winton have more on the story: Multiple murder suspect had benefited from three-strikes leniency

Interactive map: Location and details of killings

Photo: John Wesley Ewell appears for arraignment in the courtroom of Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Keith L. Schwartz. The Harbor Gateway handyman is accused in the home invasion slayings of four people this fall. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

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