Maria Ramirez wavered for weeks. At times, she wanted to say nothing. Other times, she wanted to say a lot.
The last year and a half had been about the teen accused of gunning down Eric Lopez, Ramirez’s son, as he walked to school on Central Avenue in Lodi. But now that Abelardo Heras, 17, has been convicted, Maria only had one chance to confront the man who had killed her son.
She didn’t want to berate the young shackled man, or hope to someday get revenge on him. This was a chance to talk about her 21-year-old son and finally give a face to the name mentioned over and over in police reports and court proceedings.
Eric wanted to finish college. He wanted to provide for his mom and siblings.
But Heras ended those dreams. Those bullets that killed Eric, Maria feels, too.
“He took a part of my heart,” Maria said.
And Heras needed to know.
‘I kept thinking he went on a trip and he’d come home’
Maria sat in the living room for an hour while a Lodi police detective searched Eric’s room. He was looking through everything — his cellphone, computer, desk, drawers — for some clue that would explain why a young man who’d never been in trouble with police would be gunned down by a known gang member while walking to the Lodi Adult School around 8:15 a.m. on Feb. 9, 2012.
But the longer he searched, the fewer answers he found.
Eric was thriving in school. He was a serious boy. One teacher told Maria that she liked Eric because even though he was quiet, he liked to help his friends.
“I feel bad. I don’t know understand why they did this to your son,” the detective told Maria when he finally emerged from Eric’s room.
But in time, the motive surfaced.
Eric’s crime: He was an acquaintance of a couple of Sureño gang members in high school. Two years after he graduated, Heras, a documented Norteño gang member, knew this and decided it was enough of a reason to kill Eric in broad daylight.
Maria knew that this kind of senseless violence shouldn’t befall her son. He was a mama’s boy.
From kindergarten through high school, Maria would periodically visit and sit next to Eric in class, because he struggled in school. Eric didn’t mind.
Every morning before school, mother and son would set aside a few minutes to have coffee. They’d take turns making the brew, then sit at the table and talk about Eric’s dreams, about finishing school and becoming an architect.
“I’m the one who got him addicted to coffee,” Maria jokes. “That was my fault. He was very close to me.”
After the detective left, the police never came back. Maria had a reason. She had an arrest. But she still didn’t have closure — none of her questions had been answered.
It didn’t help to know that someone was behind bars, not when she thought that at any moment Eric would walk through those doors.
“I struggled with this thought,” she said. “I kept thinking he went on a trip and he’d come home.”
During the days and weeks to come, Maria spent most of her time at home, unable to eat or sleep.
After she separated from her husband, her son had been a source of strength. Eric would tell her not to cry. Before she left the house each day, he told her to dress her best. She was so beautiful that she always deserved to look her best, he said.
Not having his support was the hardest part.
The only comfort came from a picture of Eric, taken by his girlfriend not long before he was killed.
In it, he smiled — Eric was always very serious and rarely laughed. Being the oldest man in the house, he needed to carry himself with a certain dignity. But in this photo he let his guard down and tried to get away with one small smirk.
“It’s the only photo that keeps him alive in my heart,” Maria said. “I can look at it when there are difficult days that I know I’ll have to struggle and really fight. I look at that picture and it gives me strength.”
‘Every day is a struggle’
Maria remembers the first time she saw the long-haired, tattooed killer led into a courtroom in chains and a jumpsuit.
“My thought was, ‘You sent my child to a special place. But you will be in a special place the rest of your life, as well,’” she said.
But as the months unfolded and a verdict slowly approached, Maria never felt that prison scared Heras. At times he’d laugh or turn toward Eric’s family and grin.
“I felt he was laughing, without realizing he’d taken the life of a person,” Maria said.
On Monday, Aug. 19, Heras was sentenced to spend the next 25 years to life behind barbed wire and concrete walls. With his fate decided, Maria could finally speak.
But as she slowly rose from her chair and shuffled toward the front, the moment was too much. Thoughts of speaking terrified Maria. And as she stood just a few feet from her son’s killer, she couldn’t help but cry.
Instead, an interpreter read Maria’s letter, as she stood, dressed in her finest clothes with a tissue in her hand.
“He had a big heart. He helped his friends. He was a servant who wanted to help many,” the interpreter said.
It was important Heras knew something about the life he ended and that his actions hurt many. The interpreter continued to speak, talking about the moments that would be lost and the dreams left unfulfilled.
But before Heras was led away, she wanted him to know one thing.
“I want to let you know that I forgive you, and my God forgives you for what you’ve done,” the interpreter said. “You stole a life.”
Her words echoed throughout the courtroom. Nothing more was said. Maria nearly fell to her knees, as her whimpers turned into sobbing. She couldn’t brave that moment one minute longer. That pain she felt when the police left her home more than a year ago had resurfaced, stronger than ever.
“Let’s take a brief recess,” San Joaquin Superior Court Judge William Johnson said.
Maria leaned on the interpreter and Deputy District Attorney Janet Smith like crutches. No one said a word. Even after she got outside, Maria’s screams still echoed in the hallway and through the courtroom doors.
Deep down, she never wanted to speak, but Heras needed to know.
Now he was sentenced. Eric was gone. And the healing still hadn’t begun.
“Every day is a struggle,” Maria said. “And it’s a struggle to accept what happened.”
Contact reporter Kristopher Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.