A drunk driver killed her husband and daughter. His 11-year sentence brings no comfort

Anaheim, CA - April 10: Erika Lopez, shown holding a photo of her late husband, Alberto Lopez, 36, left, and 10 year old daughter, Lucero Lopez, at her apartment in Anaheim Wednesday, April 10, 2024. Lopez, who was 9 months pregnant when the church van she was riding in was struck by a DUI driver. Erika's 10 year old daughter and her husband died in the crash. The driver, Mario Armando Paz Jr., is awaiting trial on manslaughter charges. Lopez is speaking out against prosecutors potentially giving Paz a plea deal that would significantly reduce his possible prison sentence. Her daughter who died in the crash is 10 year old Lucero Lopez. Her husband's name is Alberto Lopez, 36. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Erika Lopez holds a photo of her late husband, Alberto Lopez, and 10-year-old daughter, Lucero Lopez, at her apartment in Anaheim. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Erika Lopez would give anything for her 1-year-old daughter, Estrellita, to know her father.

She holds the little girl in front of framed pictures of her husband on the wall of the bedroom in their Anaheim apartment, pointing out the man who loved her mother so well that he'd bring her a red rose nearly every day after work.

She shouts one of the first words in her budding vocabulary — "Papa! Papa!" — and pats the pictures with her tiny hands.

On Jan. 25, 2023, Lopez's husband, Alberto Vicente Lopez, and their 10-year-old daughter, Lucero, were killed when a drunk driver crashed into the van they were riding in on their way home from church. Lopez, who was also in the van, along with their now 9-year-old son Anebel, was seven months pregnant with Estrellita at the time.

A police officer stands next to a wrecked sedan in an intersection
Erika Lopez and her family were riding in a van on the way home from church when it was struck by a black sedan driven by a drunk driver in January 2023. Lopez's husband and daughter died, along with another van passenger. (OnScene.TV)

"She will never meet her sister. She'll never know what it's like to run up to her dad and give him a hug," Lopez told The Times in Spanish.

Lopez, 33, wiped tears from her eyes as she spoke about her husband and daughter and the lives they might have lived. Nothing will bring them back, she said, but for more than a year she's waited for justice and some acknowledgment of the shattered dreams she had for her family.

Inside a Santa Ana courtroom on Thursday, Superior Court Judge Larry Yellin handed down the criminal justice system's measure of the tragedy.

Mario Armando Paz Jr. pleaded guilty to three felony counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and two felony counts related to driving under the influence of alcohol causing injury, along with sentencing enhancements.

Yellin immediately sentenced him to 11 years in state prison, about half the time he might have faced behind bars if he'd been found guilty by a jury. The reduced sentence is an acknowledgment that Paz accepted responsibility for his actions early in the court process, Yellin said.

A woman sitting in the back of the courtroom clutched a rosary and prayed quietly in Spanish as the judge spoke.

The court had raised the possibility of an 11-year term at prior hearings, when Paz had indicated his desire to plead guilty. Lopez strongly opposed the reduced sentence.

"It's not enough," Lopez, tears streaming down her face, told Yellin in a statement to the court before he handed down the sentence. "My daughter is not coming back in 11 years."

Yellin nodded. There's no number he could hand down as a sentence that would ever bring back her husband or daughter, he responded, lamenting that he wished he had that power.

A woman standing in a doorway next to children's toys wipes tears from her eyes
Erika Lopez weeps while talking about the accident that took the lives of her husband and older daughter in 2023. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

"My heart as a person breaks for you," he said. "The tragedy of this room is we can't fix anything."

Orange County Dist. Atty. Todd Spitzer called the sentence "beyond reprehensible" in a statement to The Times on Friday.

"This was not an accident. It was not a mistake. The only mistake involved in this case is the ridiculously light 11-year-sentence Judge Yellin handed the defendant, who should be spending more than twice that amount of time behind bars for killing three human beings," Spitzer said.

Unwelcome memories of the moment her family was ripped apart are seared in Lopez's mind.

She remembers how happy they were as they left their church in Yorba Linda that evening. Alberto, 36, Lucero, Anebel and her sister-in-law piled into a van along with other churchgoers to make their way home after Bible study. They rode through the city streets into Placentia, where they entered the intersection of Melrose Street and Orangethorpe Avenue. A sedan driven by Paz slammed into the side of the van.

Alberto was thrown from the vehicle and died at the scene, as did another church member. Lopez said her husband suffered a devastating head injury. She knew he was gone the moment she saw him, but still, she sat on the sidewalk next to his body and pleaded for him to survive.

Lucero was taken by ambulance to a children's hospital, where she was pronounced dead. Three other passengers with serious injuries were taken to UCI Medical Center for treatment.

The crash was so violent that the rear axle was ripped off the van. Shattered glass was strewn across the intersection as police investigated the scene.

Paz, then 24 years old, was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence. His blood alcohol level was 0.14, or 75% higher than the legal limit, according to court records.

Erika Lopez weeps while holding her 1-year-old daughter, Estrellita
Erika Lopez holds her 1-year-old daughter, Estrellita, who was born a few weeks after her father and sister were killed when a DUI driver slammed into the van the family was riding in. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times)

Paz's attorney declined to comment on the case.

In seeking to raise Paz's bail before trial, Placentia Sgt. Frank Garza wrote in a declaration that "there is no indication that he understands the seriousness or gravity of the tragedy he caused."

"The defendant showed no remorse and was only concerned with his tools that were left inside of the vehicle he was driving," Garza wrote.

In the courtroom on Thursday, Paz spoke softly when acknowledging the terms of his guilty plea and sentence. He looked straight ahead as Lopez delivered her remarks at a podium behind him.

Before the sentence was imposed, Deputy Dist. Atty. Brian Orue told the court that he opposed the 11-year term. He noted that Paz had previously been arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence in January 2021 in Tustin, but charges were not filed in the case.

"What the people pray for is that Mr. Paz learns his lesson and we never see him back here," Orue said during the hearing.

As the courtroom emptied out, Lopez sat on one of the wooden benches that line the courthouse hallway. Estrellita, wearing a fluffy pink dress and two white flowers in her hair, slept soundly in a car seat near her mother's feet.

With her head in her hands, she wept.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.