Suspect charged in killing of man whose body was found in Malibu Lagoon barrel

MALIBU, CA-JULY 31, 2023: Lt. Hugo Reynaga, left, and Sgt. Arias (didn't give first name) of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department investigate the scene at the Malibu Lagoon, where a body was found inside a 55-gallon drum. According to Lt. Hugo Reynaga, a lifeguard noticed the 55-gallon drum floating in the middle of the lagoon this morning and after getting it to shore and opening up the lld, discovered a lifeless human body inside. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
Members of the L.A. County Sheriff's Department investigate the scene at Malibu Lagoon State Beach, where a body was found inside a 55-gallon drum on July 31. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

A 32-year-old man is in custody after being charged in the murder of a musician whose body was found inside a barrel at Malibu Lagoon State Beach this summer.

Los Angeles County sheriff's detectives arrested Joshua Lee Simmons earlier this month. He is charged in the killing of Javonnta Murphy, who authorities say was fatally shot before his body was dumped into the lagoon inside a 55-gallon plastic drum.

Prosecutors allege that Simmons shot Murphy to death on July 27, three days before a maintenance worker first spotted the barrel in a shallow water inlet.

The maintenance worker paddled out in a kayak and pulled the container to the shore, but didn’t open it. The next day, a lifeguard saw the same barrel — now back in the lagoon — and swam out and brought it onto the beach, where he opened it and discovered the body.

Simmons is also charged with making criminal threats against a second man on the same day he is accused of killing Murphy. That man, Brandon Gray, was taken into custody at the Malibu/Lost Hills sheriff's station on Oct. 5, but was not charged.

Prosecutors allege that an accomplice, Dennis Eugene Vance, helped cover up the fatal shooting and have charged him as an accessory after the fact.

Read more: Man whose body was found in a barrel in Malibu was shot in the head, coroner finds

Simmons is also the suspect in an attempted robbery at Meza Jewelry in El Monte that was thwarted by a store owner. Surveillance cameras captured the burglary suspect around 2 p.m. on Sept. 2 as he walked down Main Street — dressed in all black, wearing a face mask and carrying a cardboard box. Israel Mesa was sprayed with bear repellent by the suspect.

A video identifying Simmons as the suspect was circulated by detectives seeking to apprehend him just days after the attempted robbery.

Read more: Man found in barrel at Malibu Lagoon was aspiring L.A. recording artist

Simmons and Vance were arrested on Oct. 3. Two days later, Simmons was charged with murder, criminal threats, attempted robbery and two counts of criminal threats against the store owner.

Simmons is being held on $3.275-million bail in L.A. County's Men's Central Jail and is due back in court on Nov. 3. He has yet to enter a plea. Vance has been released on bond listed as $50,000 and is also set to appear that day.

Simmons has a history of violent offenses, including a 2019 conviction for assault with a deadly weapon in connection with a crime in 2013.

Murphy, 32, was living in Sylmar at the time he was killed and was pursuing a career in music, according to authorities and a family friend. He grew up in South Los Angeles with his four brothers — two older and two younger, said Patrick Nelson, 46, a family friend who dated Murphy’s mother and considered himself a stepfather of sorts to Murphy.

Read more: Malibu lifeguard cracks open suspiciously heavy barrel, finds a body

After the death of Murphy’s grandmother, who anchored their family, Murphy moved into an apartment of his own in Sylmar, Nelson said. He was pursuing a career in rapping and dreamed of becoming a successful artist, Nelson said.

Murphy spent his free time lifting weights and running, Nelson said, and was father to a young son.

“He was a good kid, good person. He didn’t gang-bang. What happened to him, I just don’t understand,” Nelson said.

Murphy's naked body was inside a barrel that contained markings suggesting it came from a printing company.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.