Nearly eight years after her son was killed in the crossfire of a Santa Monica gang's violence, Armita Lopez found justice Thursday in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom. But not before her son's killer seized one last opportunity to torment her.
"I was waiting for this day because it was not fair that they killed my son," a tearful Lopez said of Jose Contreras Zapien Jr. and his fellow gang members. Zapien mocked her with a dismissive chuckle and smirk.
The judge snapped at Zapien, telling him to "stop smiling." Minutes later, he sentenced the 25-year-old to life in prison without the possibility of parole, plus an additional 95 years.
Zapien's animated and disruptive behavior showed what a deplorable individual he has become, a prosecutor said.
"His life is characterized by his pride for his gang, but the strongest and most despicable trait he has is irreverence for human life," said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Andrew Cooper.
After a two-week trial, a jury in November deliberated only five hours before finding Zapien guilty of two counts of murder, 12 counts of attempted murder and several special firearms and gang allegations in connection with five shootings over two years.
Zapien's shooting rampage was in retaliation for the slaying of one of his fellow gang members, prosecutors said.
Zapien was arrested in 2007 with seven other suspects for acts that Santa Monica police said "terrorized" the community. Lopez's son, Eddie, was killed by Zapien on Feb. 28, 2006. The 15-year-old was described by classmates at Santa Monica High School as well-liked, athletic and comedic. He was remembered in a memorial and peace march that drew hundreds of people.
About 9 o'clock on the night of his death, Eddie Lopez had gone with friends Ismael Tony Velasquez and Michael Arceo to buy food from a liquor store near Pico Boulevard and 26th Street. Velasquez belonged to a gang that had feuded with Zapien's. As the friends ate in the parking lot, Zapien popped out from behind a wall, fired at them and then fled by car.
Lopez died at the scene. Police said he had no gang affiliations. His aunt, Concepcion Lopez, said in court Thursday that the boy's grandmother died two years ago because Eddie was no longer around to help his grandmother cook and keep track of medication.
"He was the one grandson that helped with everything," Lopez said.
Zapien joined a gang in his early teens, authorities said. He was involved in a shooting at age 15, prosecutors said.
Zapien was involved in his final shooting on Dec. 27, 2006, when he was 18. Prosecutors said he attacked three rival gang members who were walking near Virginia Avenue Park in Santa Monica.
From inside a car, Zapien yelled a derogatory term for the rival gang and then fired three rounds as they tried to flee, prosecutors said.
"They got me! They got me!" one of the men cried after being hit in the upper back, according to court files. He collapsed and died.
Zapien's attorney, Patrick Lake, did not return calls seeking comment.
Several of Zapien's friends and family members attended Thursday's court hearing. "What's up, fool?" Zapien said to one as a sheriff's deputy escorted him into court.
Zapien could have received the death penalty, but the district attorney's office chose not to pursue that punishment.