The tragic saga of 3-year-old Stephanie Kuhen's slaying two years ago came to a wrenching conclusion Friday as three Cypress Park gang members were sentenced to what could amount to life in prison for killing the toddler and attempting to gun down five others including her mother and two young brothers.
In a courtroom packed with the grieving families of the child and the young men convicted of her death, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Edward Ferns ordered Anthony Gabriel Rodriguez, 28, Manuel Rosales Jr., 22, and Hugo David Gomez, 18, to be sent to state prison for terms of 54 years and eight months to life.
Notwithstanding emotional pleas for leniency, Ferns firmly declared that all three men had demonstrated a "high degree of callousness and viciousness" for their part in the infamous "wrong way" shooting just north of downtown Los Angeles.
"You have obviously engaged in . . . conduct which means you are a serious danger to society," Ferns said.
The sentencing followed a two-hour hearing in which the often eloquent sparring between attorneys was overshadowed by the anger and anguish over what occurred on a dark, crime-plagued street in the early morning hours of Sept. 17, 1995.
"I've been writing this statement for the last 22 months," Linda Dalton, the toddler's grandmother, told the hushed courtroom before breaking into tears. "But nothing I can say or do will ever bring my granddaughter back."
Dalton recalled how she spent day after day in the courtroom, reliving the moments in which Stephanie Kuhen and the others--returning from a birthday party--came under fire as their car ventured down a dead-end street ruled by a gang called the Avenues. The shooting left Stephanie dead and wounded one of her young brothers and her mother's boyfriend, who was driving the car.
"I've never seen one sign of remorse. . . . I see only pathetic stares," Dalton told the gang members.
"I pity you for being so stupid," she continued. "How many lives has your stupidity destroyed? Not only my family's but your own.
"How dare you!" she shouted at the three. "You're no better than wild animals. And you need to be locked in a cage forever so you can never hurt another family like . . . mine."
Moments earlier, Robynn Kuhen, who was seated next to her daughter at the time of the shooting, had urged Ferns to punish the gang members to the fullest extent of the law.
"I ask that you give them the maximum penalty because they are only sorry for being caught, tried and convicted," Kuhen said.
But when time was allowed for the defendants to speak, the youngest, Gomez, apologized to the Kuhen family for the tragedy.
"I'm sorry to the Kuhen family," Gomez said. "She [Kuhen's grandmother] can say I'm stupid or whatever . . . all I'm going to say is I'm sorry."
Gomez also maintained his innocence. "I'm an Avenues gang member . . . but that doesn't mean I'm guilty of Stephanie Kuhen's murder," he said.
Although Gomez's co-defendants did not address the court, Rosales sent a private letter of apology to the family, and Rodriguez's family pleaded for leniency on his behalf.
"I know my brother is innocent," Vivian Rodriguez said, blaming his conviction on what she portrayed as the false statements of Robynn Kuhen and a gang member who testified in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
"He was more than an older brother to me," Rodriguez said, choking back tears. "He was like a father . . . he was a provider. And now we don't have him."
Rodriguez's mother, Joanne, reminded Ferns that her son, before this incident, had no criminal record and said that he--and the other defendants--were "railroaded" into convictions by a public that demanded someone pay for the shooting.
"There were lies and lies and lies," she said. "But I know that Anthony was not there that night."
Rodriguez's grandmother, Margaret Fregoso, not only defended him but insisted that the Kuhen family must bear some responsibility for the tragedy.
Alluding to defense theories that the family knew the area well enough to avoid a dangerous street, Fregoso noted that some people outside of court have speculated that the car was in the neighborhood that night so someone could buy drugs. Just being in that area so early in the morning was tantamount to "child endangerment," Fregoso said.
"They had to be up to something," she said.
But after the sentences were pronounced, as members of Stephanie Kuhen's family gathered outside the courthouse, Robynn Kuhen angrily denied the suggestion that she or the others were attempting to do anything that night but find a shortcut home.
"There was no evidence to substantiate that we were there to buy drugs," Kuhen said. "We never stopped. If we were there to buy drugs, how come we never stopped? How come they shot up the car? They knew there were children in the car."
Although one additional defendant, 17-year-old Augustin Lizama, faces a retrial after a jury deadlocked on charges against him, Robynn Kuhen and other family members expressed relief at the sentences handed down by Ferns.
"I'm glad that it's over," she said, standing next to her husband. "We can move on from this day. Stephanie can rest now. She can rest knowing that we did our best. We were successful in getting the people who took her away from us."
Times staff writer John L. Mitchell contributed to this story.