A teen on Thursday entered a guilty plea in the shooting death of a Lodi man last year.
Abelardo Heras, 17, pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree murder and committing a felony for the benefit of a criminal street gang in the Feb. 9, 2012 shooting death of 21-year-old Eric Lopez Ramirez.
With the plea, Heras avoids trial and a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
One other count was dropped and Heras, a documented Norteño gang member, agreed to spend the next 25 years to life behind bars, with the possibility of parole no sooner than 2038.
“The family (of Ramirez) felt this was fair and appropriate, and it was important to their healing,” said San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney Janet Smith. “Their main concern was that they did not want (Heras) to get out and do this to another family.”
As Judge William Johnson read the charges, Heras looked toward the small audience, his attention summoned by the sound of a mourning mother.
Ramirez’s mother and sister sat together, in tears.
The prosecution argued that Heras, who was 16 years old at the time of the shooting, spotted Ramirez walking in a documented Norteño neighborhood — the 300 block of Central Avenue in Lodi.
Heras didn’t know Ramirez. An investigation revealed that they had never even spoken prior to that day, according to Lodi Police Detective Larry Fluty.
But Heras thought Ramirez was friends with several Sureño gang members several years ago.
And, according to the prosecutor, Heras believed that was enough to kill Ramirez.
“That’s how deep gang association goes,” Smith said. “(Heras) didn’t need to know (Ramirez). All he needed to believe, whether it’s true or not, is that (Ramirez) was a rival.
“It makes sense to gang members, because that’s their whole life. Their whole purpose in life is to exterminate those who are rivals. The interesting thing about it is they don’t even know why they hate each other.”
Fluty said it’s unknown if words were exchanged, but Heras fired several shots and fled.
A Lodi police officer heard the shots and soon spotted Heras running from the scene. He gave chase and apprehended him several blocks away.
Sitting in a yellow jumpsuit, with his black hair pulled back into a ponytail and a small tattoo under his left eye, Heras looked away from Ramirez’s crying mother.
He looked at Judge Johnson, who asked if he would agree to the plea.
Heras paused for several seconds, aware of the weight of his next words.
“Yeah,” he softly said.
Heras’ mother and two other acquaintances sat close by, and left the courtroom before Heras could be taken away. His court-appointed attorney, Rachel Voss, did not wish to speak to the Lodi News-Sentinel.
Heras will return to court for sentencing on Aug. 19. Ramirez’s family and friends will also have an opportunity to address the court and tell how this murder has affected them.
Smith said Thursday’s plea will begin a long healing process.
“A mother lost her son,” Smith said. “It’s a mother who can’t see her son again, ever. Amazingly enough, she has such grace to be forgiving of this defendant and concerned about the defendant’s mother and what she must be going through.”
Smith added that this case exemplifies the senselessness of gang violence.
“The victim at some point in his life associated with a rival gang,” Smith said. “This isn’t complicated. As sad as it is and as difficult as it is to believe, that is the sole catalyst for (Heras) taking that young man’s life.”
Contact reporter Kristopher Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.