Gang members sentenced for fatal shooting of Whittier teen

SOUTH WHITTIER >> Two Whittier gang members were each sentenced to spend decades in prison Thursday for the fatal 2012 shooting of a 17-year-old Whittier boy on a busy street corner in what the prosecutor described as an orchestrated gang hit.
A Norwalk Superior Court jury convicted Whittier 13 gang members Eudiel Eddie Lopez, 21, and Daniel Cesar Stopani, 20, both of Whittier, Sept. 4 of the murder of Michael Soto of Whittier. Soto was shot to death about 12:30 p.m. on March 26, 2012, at a strip mall at the corner of Mulberry Drive and Painter Avenue in the unincorporated county area of South Whittier.
At Thursday’s sentencing hearing, Judge John Torribio sentenced both killers to the maximum sentence allowed by law, officials said.
Lopez, who was convicted of first-degree murder, was sentenced to 50 years to life in prison, according to Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Sarah Ardalani. Stopani, who was convicted of second-degree murder, received a sentence of 40 years to life in prison.
Torribio ordered each convict to pay $5,000 in restitution to the Victims Compensation Board, and $5,885 to Soto’s mother for funeral costs and lost wages, Ardalani added.
In addition to convicting Lopez and Stopani of Soto’s murder, jurors also found true the special allegations that a gun was used in the crime and that the killing was gang-related, Deputy District Attorney Brock Lunsford of the District Attorney’s Hardcore Gang Division said.
Lunsford said the shooting stemmed from a brief exchange of words between Lopez and Soto about a month prior to the shooting.
Lopez had told Soto that he was a Whittier 13 gang member, and Soto responded that he did not care. The perceived disrespect was enough to prompt Lopez to target Soto in what Lunsford described as an orchestrated gang execution.
On the day of the killing, Stopani approached Soto from the front as Lopez snuck up behind him, Lunsford said.
Stopani shouted out the name of his gang and punched Soto before Lopez drew a revolver from his waistband and began shooting, the prosecutor said. Lopez continued shooting even after the teen had fallen wounded to the ground.
Lopez was arrested for the killing within hours, officials said. Stopani was interviewed the day of the slaying, but not formally charged until February of 2013.

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Whittier gang members convicted of fatal shooting of teen in South Whittier


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)

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El Monte Flores gang members indicted on conspiracy, drug trafficking, other charges

LOS ANGELES — Federal authorities Wednesday arrested 18 El Monte Flores gang members and associates who used the former offices of the Boys & Girls Club as their hangout.
The 18 were among 41 people indicted by a federal grand jury last week on charges that include conspiracy, murder, drug trafficking, money laundering, and weapons violations.
Federal officials said the gang conducted illegal activities out of the Boys & Girls Club of America/San Gabriel Valley Club facilities on Mountain View Road.
“They used the club as a place where they would openly sell drugs and collect taxes,” said Vijay Rathi, spokesman for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The gang also used the club, which recently held community meetings and hosted a car wash fundraiser for a Flores member who was murdered.
“It is very disturbing that a facility that is supposed to give boys and girls protection and a safe place could be used for that,” Mayor Andrew Quintero said.


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Gang member sentenced for shotgun slaying of Covina man

0628_NWS_SGT-L-NAVARETTEA judge sentenced a gang member to 80 years to life in prison this week for the shotgun slaying of a Covina man in October of 2012.
Fred Navarette, 31, of Covina was on a mission to gun down rival gang members when he came upon a group of five people gathered on a sidewalk in the 300 block of North Vecino Avenue in Covina about 3:30 a.m. on October 28, 2012, according to investigators and prosecutors.
Navarette was armed with a shotgun and driving a pickup truck he had stolen earlier in the day, Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Robert Serna said.
“He went into a known gang area with the shotgun and the stolen truck, pulled up to a group of people on the sidewalk, racked the shotgun, yelled out, ‘West Covina,’ and fired one shot at the group,” Serna said.
The shotgun blast fatally wounded Thomas Fernandez, the 23-year-old father of a then-22-month-old son who lived nearby, officials said. Fernandez ran into the carport area of an apartment complex a block to the south where he collapsed and died. No one else in the group was wounded.
Navarette received a term of 80 years to life in state prison Wednesday in the courtroom of Pomona Superior Court Judge Bruce Marrs, officials said.
A jury convicted him earlier this month of murder, along with the special allegations that the killing was gang-related and that Navarette personally used a firearm in the slaying, Serna said. He was also convicted of auto theft, being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm and possession of a short-barrelled shotgun.
The conviction comes as Navarette’s second strike, as he has a prior conviction for assault with intent to cause great bodily injury, also with the special allegation that the crime was gang-related, Serna said.
Covina police arrested Navarette two days after the fatal shooting, Marquez said.
He was first charged only with auto theft as detectives continues gathering evidence, police said. Prosecutors charged Navaratte with Fernandez’s murder in March of 2013,
A passenger who was in the pickup truck with Navarette at the time of the shooting testified against him, and Navarette’s DNA was found on the shotgun used in the shooting, as well as the driver-side of the pickup truck used in the killing, Serna said.
Officials described Navarette as member of the West Covina 13 street gang.
During his trial, he grew hair over tattoos on his head, including a set of horns, Serna said.
Authorities described Fernandez and as an affiliate of the El Monte Flores gang.
His girlfriend, Jessica Martinez, said at the time of the shooting that although Fernandez had associated with the gang in the past and had friends who were involved with it, Fernandez was not a gang member.
Martinez described Fernandez as a good father and a kind man who loved music and dreamed of becoming a rapper.

TOP: Fred Navarette, 31, of Covina, was sentenced to 80 years to life in prison Wednesday, June 25, 2014, for the Oct. 28, 2012, shotgun slaying of Thomas Fernandez, 23, of Covina, in the 300 block of North Vecino Avenue in Covina. (Courtesy of the Covina Police Department)
BELOW: Mourners gather at the scene where 23-year-old Thomas Fernandez of Covina died after being wounded in a shooting on October 28, 2012. Fred Navarette, 31, of Covina, has since been convicted of murder and other crimes in connection with the killing and sentenced to 80 years to life in prison.
(Staff photo by Brian Day)

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Man threatened at gunpoint in Pasadena

PASADENA — A man escaped unharmed after a group of apparent gang members threatened him at gunpoint late Friday, police said.
The incident took place about 10:30 p.m. at Lake Avenue and Claremont Street, Pasadena police Lt. Jason Clawson said.
A 23-year-old Pasadena man was walking when a car containing a group of suspects approached, the lieutenant said. A detailed description of the vehicle or its occupants was not available.
“One of the occupants yelled out a gang slogan, then pointed what was believed to be a handgun at the victim,” Clawson said.
The victim ran away, he said. No shots were fired.

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Whittier woman sentenced for near-fatal shooting of Pico Rivera woman

PICO RIVERA — A judge sentenced a 35-year-old Whittier woman to more than three decades in state prison Thursday for serving as the getaway driver in the 2011 shooting of a Pico Rivera woman which left her in a vegetative state, authorities said.
Michele Caldera received a prison term of 32 years to life in Norwalk Superior Court, Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Sarah Ardalani said.
She faced a maximum sentence of 40 years to life in prison following her April 14 conviction for the attempted murder of then-36-year-old Gloria Montes on May 19, 2011, officials said. A jury also convicted her of being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm, and found true the special allegation that the attack was gang-related.
Montes was shot in the head as she slept in her home in the 5300 block of Lindsey Avenue in Pico Rivera.
Montes testified from a wheelchair during earlier court proceedings, but has since taken a turn for the worst and is now in a vegetative state, Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Brock Lunsford said.
Caldera drove triggerman Arthur Lerma, 36, of Whittier and Jose Trejo, 24, of Pico Rivera to the scene of the shooting.
“At trial, the prosecutor said Lerma targeted the victim because she told police that he was involved in a robbery,” district attorney’s officials said in a written statement.
Lerma served eight years in prison for a 2002 robbery, and had recently been paroled when the shooting occurred, investigators said.
“While Lerma was in prison, he sent the victim a letter that said he knew she snitched on him. Furthermore, Lerma said he was going to kill her when he got out of prison.”
The three defendants were partying together at a motel when Caldera borrowed a car to drive Lerma and Trejo home, prosecutors said. But the three made a stop in an alley outside Montes’ home.
“The two men approached and Lerma yelled out, “Go-Go,” which was the victim’s nickname,” according to the district attorney’s office statement. “The female victim answered and Lerma shot her in the head.”
A jury convicted Lerma in April of attempted murder, shooting at an inhabited dwelling and being a felon in possession of a firearm. The jury also found that the crime was gang-related.
Lerma received a sentence of 60 years to life in prison May 7.
Trejo, who had pleaded “no contest” to a charge of assault with a deadly weapon, was expected to receive eight years in state prison when he returned to Norwalk Superior Court for sentencing June 3. He testified during the trial for Lerma and Caldera.
Prosecutors described Lerma and Trejo as members of the Pico Nuevo street gang, and Caldera as a member of the Whittier Varrio Locos gang, which is allied with Pico Nuevo.
Montes, a self-described Pico Nuevo gang member, testified at a 2012 preliminary hearing that she had been close friends with people named Arthur Lerma and Michele Caldera, but she did not recognize them in the courtroom. She further testified that if she knew the identity of her attackers, she would not say.
She also testified she did not recall receiving the threatening letter from Lerma while he was in prison for the 2002 robbery.
Officials said that while Montes had been interviewed by detectives regarding the 2002 robbery, she never testified against Lerma.

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Baldwin Park murder suspect accidental released by sheriff’s officials last year re-captured in Mexico


A suspect in a fatal 2010 shooting in Baldwin Park who has been sought since he was accidentally released from sheriff’s custody last year due to a clerical error as he was awaiting trial was re-captured Wednesday in Mexico, authorities said.
Johnny Mata, 33, was awaiting trial for the fatal shooting of 34-year-old David Anthony Deanda on Christmas Eve of 2010 in the 13200 block of Francisquito Avenue, authorities said at the time. The slaying was believed to be gang related.
Sheriff’s officials launched a manhunt and asked the public’s help to recapture Mata in the weeks following Mata’s erroneous release. And they developed leads indicating he had fled to Mexico, likely near the San Ysidro border crossing, Deputy Juanita Navarro-Suarez of the Sheriff’s Headquarters Burau said in a written statement.
“On Wednesday, May 7, 2014, suspect Mata was located, detained and escorted by Mexican authorities to the United States-Mexico border, San Ysidro port of entry, where LASD personnel took custody of him,” Navarro-Suarez said. “Suspect Mata was re-booked into the Los Angeles County Jail system and is being held in lieu of $2,065,000 bail.”
El Monte police initially arrested Mata in connection with the 2010 Baldwin Park slaying on May 25, 2012, after he ran from a stolen car, according to El Monte police Lt. David Vautrin.
But Mata was accidentally released from the inmate processing unit at the Inmate Reception Center in Los Angeles on April 4, 2013, Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials said. The mistake stemmed from a clerical error, then-sheriff’s department spokesman Steve Whitmore said. A clerk failed to order Mata held pending his murder trial after a charge of attempted murder was dismissed.
Wednesday arrest came after a coalition Los Angeles County law enforcement agencies, U.S. Marshals Service officials, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, U.S. Customs and Border Protection and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department officials determined Mata’s whereabouts in Mexico, according to Navarro-Suarez said.
According to county booking records, Mata was scheduled to appear Thursday in Pomona Superior Court.

PHOTO of murder suspect Johnny Mata, 33, courtesy of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

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Walnut man admits being gang ‘shotcaller,’ faces 27 years in prison

LOS ANGELES >> A Walnut man and “shotcaller” of a South Los Angeles street gang faces 27 years in prison after pleading guilty Wednesday to federal racketeering and dug trafficking charges for helping the gang’s incarcerated leader continue managing the gang from behind bars, authorities said.
Manuel Valencia, 38, pleaded guilty to violating the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act and “engaging in a continuing criminal enterprise connected to drug trafficking,” U.S. Department of Justice spokesman Thom Mrozek said in a written statement.
Valencia, who could have faced life in prison if convicted at trial, is expected to receive 27 years in prison when he returns to federal court in Los Angeles for sentencing Sept. 8, officials said. He admitted to being a shotcaller for the Harpys street gang, one of more than a dozen Latino gangs in the South Los Angeles Area controlled by imprisoned Mexican Mafia member Danny Roman.
Acting on the orders of Roman, who is serving a life sentence at Pelican State Prison, Valencia, “admitted that he oversaw and participated in gang activities, which included collecting ‘taxes’ from drug dealers who were allowed to operate in gang territory, retaliating against people who ran afoul of the gang and engaging in drug trafficking,” Mrozek said.
Valencia’s plea comes a week after Roman’s daughter, 37-year-old Vianna Roman of Los Angeles, pleaded guilty to racketeering, drug and weapons offenses for “acting as a conduit for her father’s orders as he exercised control of the Harpys gang,” Mrozek added.
Vianna Roman is expected to receive 20 years in prison when she returns to court for sentencing July 28, Mrozek said, though additional prison time is possible if deemed appropriate by U.S. District Judge R. Hary Klausner.
The guilty pleas come as a result of a 2-year-old indictment against 29 defendants, officials said. Of those originally charged in the indictment, 24 have pleaded guilty, one is awaiting trial, three are fugitives and one had charges dismissed after being convicted of murder in an unrelated case.

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$20,000 reward offered in Compton slaying of Pasadena city worker


COMPTON >> Authorities offered a $20,000 reward Wednesday in connection with the fatal January shooting of a Pasadena city employee and aspiring firefighter believed to have been gunned down by gang members in a case of mistaken identity.
Tauruson McMillian, 34, of Cerritos died in a car-to-car shooting about 6:40 p.m. Jan. 4 at Wilmington and Rosecrans avenues, Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials said. Homicide detectives believe he may have been shot by gang members simply because of the color of his car. His car was red.
McMillian had just left a friend’s house in Compton as he was speaking with his girlfriend on the phone while en route to her home when he was shot, Sgt. John O’Brien of the Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau said. There were no signs of a confrontation before the gunfire.
“He was talking to her about what they were going to have for dinner when the phone went dead,” O’Brien said.
McMillian had no children of his own, but had helped raise his girlfriend Pamela Adel’s twin 10-year-old sons and 16-year-old daughter for the past nine years, Adel said.
He had worked as a sanitation engineer for the Pasadena Department of Public Works for a year and a half, and was also studying fire science at Santa Ana College with a goal of one day becoming a firefighter, she said.
“We remember him for the good-hearted individual he was. His smile, his good-hearted presence,” Adel said. “Let’s keep his memory alive.”
While other theories have not been ruled out, McMillian may have been targeted because he was driving a red Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS on Wilmington Avenue, just north of Rosecrans Avenue, when a car pulled up along the passenger side of his Monte Carlo and someone inside opened fire, O’Brien said.
0424_PSN-L-REWARD2McMillian was wounded several times in the upper torso, O’Brien said. His car crashed into a tree, and he was pronounced dead at the scene.
Investigators suspect the red color of the car may have been mistaken for a sign of gang affiliation by his killer or killers.
“We believe it was gang members who fired on him,” Lt. John Corina said. The area where the shooting occurred is known to be inhabited by several street gangs.
But the attacker or attackers were mistaken, Corina said. “He’s not involved in gangs.”
The car from which the shots were fired has been described only as a light-colored sedan, Corina said. No description of the killer or killers was available.
Investigators have talked with some witnesses, but believe there are many others yet to come forward, O’Brien said. Other drivers in traffic were believed to have witnessed the shooting, and the street was busy with people at the time of the shooting, as a nearby church was about to hold a 7 p.m. service.
In hopes of generating new leads in the slaying, officials said, the County of Los Angeles and the city of Compton each put up $10,000 for a total reward amount of $20,000 for information leading to the conviction of his killer or killers.
0424_PSN-L-REWARD3McMillian’s colleagues in Pasadena remain saddened by his slaying, Pasadena spokesman William Boyer said.
“There were, and there continue to be, condolences expressed on his untimely death,” Boyer said. “We do hope that the reward will perhaps motivate someone to come forward and help solve the case.”
Anyone with information was asked to contact the Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau at 323-890-5500.

PHOTOS: Homicide victim Taurus McMillian, 34, of Cerritos (courtesy)

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Pasadena search warrant yields gun, meth, hash and arrest

PASADENA — Pasadena police gang detectives arrested man and seized a handgun, more than three ounces of methamphetamine and more than 10 ounces of hash while serving a search warrant at a Pasadena apartment Thursday afternoon, officials said.
Eddie Vasquez, 33, of Pasadena was booked on suspicion of possession of methamphetamine for sale, possession of concentrated cannabis for sale and being a convicted felon in possession of a handgun following the 2:30 p.m. search in the 500 block of North Marengo Avenue, Pasadena police Lt. Vasken Gourdikian said.
Officers assigned to the Pasadena Police Departments Special Enforcement Section were continuing an ongoing investigation when they showed up at Vasquez’s home, he said. Vasquez was suspected to have gang ties.
According to county booking records, Vasquez was being held in lieu of $35,000 bail pending his initial court appearance.

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