$10,000 in rewards offered as California police hunt fugitive murder suspect

Reuters News
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Posted: Aug 13, 2015 5:33 PM

(Reuters) - Reward money totaling $10,000 has been offered in the search for a man wanted in a crime spree that included a killing and kidnapping as police in California on Thursday scoured mountain ranges and high desert for the suspect.

Authorities have been searching for 34-year-old Benjamin Peter Ashley for about two weeks in a rural area around the town of Weldon, 55 miles northeast of Bakersfield, said Ray Pruitt, spokesman for the Kern County Sheriff's Office.

Pruitt said a judge issued a no bail warrant on Thursday for Ashley's arrest on charges of kidnapping, murder and attempted murder of a police officer. The U.S. Marshals Service and a crime tip service, Secret Witness, have each offered 5,000 in rewards for information leading to an arrest.

Up to 150 people, including Kern County deputies, support personnel and authorities from other jurisdictions, are searching for Ashley by foot and off-road vehicles, and from the air.

Pruitt said the rugged terrain was dotted with caves, abandoned mine shafts, unoccupied vacation homes, abandoned properties and outbuildings.

"It's extremely challenging," he said. "It's a slow tedious process because this guy has already proven to us that he is extremely dangerous."

The string of violent crimes began on July 28, when authorities say Ashley held three young men at gunpoint in a cabin where he may have been squatting. When the trio escaped, Ashley fled, possibly by stealing a pickup truck, police said.

Two days later, a former dentist, David Louis Markiewitz, was shot to death in a cabin about 10 miles away.

Authorities said members of the Kern County Sheriff's SWAT team tracked Ashley on foot for two days following the killing, until he eluded them after a gunfight in which two deputies were wounded.

Pruitt said Ashley was in the custody of Kern County jailers last October following an arrest over a misdemeanor warrant, but was released on a promise to appear in a court in neighboring Los Angeles County.

Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said on Thursday that Ashley's release resulted from federal rules limiting jail populations, or "fed caps," and that he failed to appear for his court date.

(Reporting by Curtis Skinner in San Francisco; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney)