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Gang member convicted of Santa Monica murders gets life sentence

A 25-year-old man convicted of murdering two people in Santa Monica during attempts as a teenager to gun down rival gang members was sentenced Thursday to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Jose Contreras Zapien Jr., was also given a prison term of 95 years to life by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge George Lomeli.

“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 L.A. County Deputy Dist. Atty. Andrew Cooper.

Homicide Report: Tracking killings in L.A. County

Zapien was allegedly seeking retribution for the 2004 killing of his Sotel gang friend, Alain "Racoon" Castillo, at the hands of the Santa Monica 13 gang. Prosecutors accused Zapien in five separate shootings spanning two years.

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 the courtroom Thursday, Zapien, bounced and laughed in his seat with his eyes perked wide open. The judge admonished Zapien for smiling as a victim's mother spoke, with his 2-inch-tall jail-acquired tattoo of "Sotel” along his hairline facing her.

"I was waiting for this day because it was not fair that they killed my son,” Armita Lopez told the court during a four-sentence speech about her slain son, Eddie.

Zapien was swept up in 2007 along with seven other suspects for acts that Santa Monica police said "terrorized" their community, including the February 2006 slaying of Eddie Lopez, who was described by classmates as a well-liked, athletic and comedic 15-year-old at Santa Monica High School. He was remembered in a memorial and peace march that drew hundreds of people.

At about 9 p.m. on the night of his death, Lopez had gone with friends Ismael Tony Velasquez and Michael Arceo to buy food from a liquor store near Pico Boulevard and 26th Street. As they ate in the parking lot, Zapien popped out from behind a wall, fired at them and then fled by car.

Velasquez belonged to Santa Monica 13, which continues to battle Zapien’s West Los Angeles-based Sotel.

Lopez died at the scene. His aunt, Concepcion Lopez, said in court Thursday that her mother 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 Sotel in his early teens. The first known shooting incident came in 2004 when he was 15. He fired from a car at Guillermo Castell, Ricardo Nunez and Omar Nunez. Castell, who had been on a bike, belonged to Santa Monica 13, prosecutors said. Zapien was briefly in custody after the shooting, according to court records.

In 2006, Krizna Ayala and Benigno Arroyo, both gang members, were shot by Zapien again in a drive-by, prosecutors alleged. Zapien was wearing an ankle monitor during the shooting as a condition of a sealed juvenile case, but allegedly found a way to defeat the tracking.

Later that year, he shot at Santa Monica 13 members Juan Bonilla and Jose Trejo. Prosecutors said he missed them both. A bullet struck bystander Brittney Milan in the leg, causing injury that required intensive rehabilitation before she could walk again.

The final shooting occurred shortly after 7 p.m. in December 2006. Gang members Miguel Martin, his cousin Abel Jimenez and friend William Crishon were walking in the parking lot of Virginia Avenue Park in Santa Monica.

Zapien yelled out a derogatory term for the rival gang from the car and then fired three rounds as the walkers fled, prosecutors said.

“They got me, they got me,” Martin, 22, cried after being hit in the upper back, according to court files. He collapsed and died.

During the first five years of the case, Zapien’s family paid nearly $23,000 for his private attorney, Patrick Lake, according to court records. The state has picked up at least $8,000 in attorney fees since his family said it was no longer able to pay.

Several friends and family, who know Zapien by the nicknames Youngster and Junior, were there to support him Thursday. He said, “What’s up, fool?” to one of them as a sheriff's deputy escorted him into court. He was held without bail during the trial.

Santa Monica has seen 17 homicides since the start of 2007, excluding last year’s fatal shooting rampage at Santa Monica College. In contrast, the similarly sized Hawthorne has seen more than twice as many -- 42. But the area along Pico Boulevard near the intersection of the 10 and 405 freeways remains troubled by occasional gang violence, Santa Monica Police Det. Maury Sumlin said.

Zapien was eligible for the death penalty for the killing of Martin, but the district attorney's office chose not to pursue the sentence, the prosecutor said.

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