SOUTH WHITTIER >> A jury convicted two Whittier gang members Thursday for the execution of a Whittier teen in broad daylight at a strip mall in 2012.
A Norwalk Superior Court jury deliberated for less than a day before finding Eudiel Eddie Lopez, 21, and Daniel Cesar Stopani, 20, guilty of the March 26, 2012, slaying of 17-year-old Michael Soto of Whittier, at a strip mall at the coroner of Mulberry Drive and Painter Avenue, in an unincorporated county area just south of Whittier, Los Angeles County District Attorney’s officials said.
“It was a gang hit; orchestrated, planned,” Deputy District Attorney Brock Lunsford said.
The killers approached the murder scene together before splitting up, the prosecutor said. Stopani approached Soto from the front and waited until Lopez took a position just behind the teen. Portions of the incident were captured by a surveillance camera mounted on a nearby bus.
Stopani suddenly shouted out “Whittier 13,” the name of a local street gang,” and punched the Soto
Lopez then pulled a .357 Magnum handgun and opened fire, Lunsford said.
The first two gunshots struck Soto in the face and back, knocking him to the ground, Lunsford said.
“Once he was down, it appears (Lopez” shot him twice more,” the prosecutor said. “He shot him four times in total.”
The jury convicted Lopez of first-degree murder and found true the special allegations that he personally used a gun in the crime, and that the crime was gang-related, district attorney’s office spokeswoman Sarah Ardalani said in a written statement.
Stopani was convicted of second-degree murder, and the jury found true the special allegations that a gun was used in the crime, and that the crime was gang-related, she said.
The shooting took place shortly after noon at busy strip mall, just across the street from a continuation school that had just let out for the day.
Lunsford said the fatal ambush stemmed from a brief exchange of words between Lopez and Soto about a month prior to the killing, Lunsford said.
Lopez had issued a gang challenge to Soto and told the teen that he was from Whittier 13. Soto responded they he didn’t care what gang Lopez belonged to.
Lopez told investigators the perceived slight was the reason he targeted Soto, Lunsford added.
Soto died at a hospital shortly after he was shot,
Relatives said Soto was not a gang member, and described him as a smart young man who hoped to join the U.S. Marines when he turned 18.
Following the shooting, Lopez and Soto split up, officials said.
Lopez fled north. He ran across a set of train tracks that were muddy due to rain the previous day, Lunsford said. Los Angeles County sheriff’s investigators were able to follow Lopez’s muddy footprint to a nearby mobile home park, where he was quickly found and arrested hiding inside a trailer that belonged to a friend.
“He was leaving footprints that led right to the back door of the trailer where he was hiding,” Lunsford said.
Officials found Lopez, the muddy shoes and the gun that was used in the shooting inside, he added.
Stopani fled south from the shooting scene and was found and interviewed by investigators the same day, Lunsford said.
But Stopani was not arrested until February of 2013, after investigators had gathered evidence of his culpability in the killing, according to Lunsford and county booking records.
Lopez and Stopani are scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 18 in Norwalk Superior Court. Lopez faces a maximum sentenced of 50 years to life in prison, while Stopani could face up to 40 years to life in prison.
PHOTO of Michael Soto, 17, of Whittier, taken at memorial to Soto in the wake of his fatal shooting on March 26, 2012, at the corner of Mulberry Drive and Painter Avenue in South Whittier. (By Keith Durflinger)