VAN NUYS — Five years after Taft High School football player LaMoun Thames was fatally stabbed at a Woodland Hills bus stop, a judge sentenced his murderer Wednesday to the maximum term of 25 years to life in state prison.
"I have nothing left but a memory," Thames' mother, Ora "Denise" Rogers, told convicted killer Oscar Lopez in an emotional confrontation in court.
"You're getting off easy," she told Lopez, "because you have a life."
Lopez, 22, stood alone to proclaim his innocence to the end.
"I apologize, but it wasn't me," he said. "I'm going to have to pay for something I didn't do. I'll never see my mother."
But Thames' survivors said Lopez's loss paled in comparison.
"He wasn't a thug, he wasn't a gang member, he was a good kid who wanted to live," Thames' sister Shanise Anderson told Lopez. "She can visit you in jail. We have to visit him in the cemetery."
Before Lopez serves the sentence imposed for first-degree murder by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Wiatt, he must first serve at least 22 years for a series of armed robberies.
"It was interesting in court to see him portraying himself as the victim," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Eleanor Hunter. "He's blaming everybody but himself, but he'll have a long time to think and reflect."
At the trial, witnesses said Lopez and companions went to the home of a female friend on Aug. 5, 1992, but then cruised Ventura Boulevard when it turned out she wasn't at home.
Along the way, prosecutors said, Lopez and others encountered Thames at a bus stop near Winnetka Boulevard.
In testimony, authorities said, Lopez asked Thames, "Where you from?" and not wanting to start any trouble, the young man replied, "Hey, I'm from nowhere."
Lopez got out of the car anyway and plunged a knife into the heart and lung of the aspiring football player. He collapsed and died in the parking lot of a grocery store.
After the slaying, it took police two years to find witnesses to the crime. In 1994, after an anonymous phone tip, authorities were able to implicate Lopez and charge him with murder. Those charges were dropped after there were problems locating witnesses.
Led by Joel Price, detectives at the Los Angeles Police Department's West Valley station continued their investigation and tracked down witnesses. Armed with the witnesses and new evidence, prosecutors took the case to the Los Angeles County Grand Jury, which returned an indictment against Lopez in January.
The victim, family and prosecutors said, was just a young man working hard to make a better life. Thames woke early in the morning to make the 35-mile bus trip to Woodland Hills from his home in South-Central Los Angeles.
At Taft High School, Anderson said, the family thought LaMoun could earn a good education in the relative safety of the West San Fernando Valley. There, she said, he could dream of attending USC and winning a college football scholarship that would one day mean a shot at the pro ranks.
Defense attorney James H. Barnes said his client's actions were not premeditated and did not constitute first-degree murder. He claimed the killing was a "spontaneous outburst" that occurred "without deliberation or reflection."
When the legal jousting was over, however, the family spoke of the lingering hurt. "I have deep emotional pains," Ora Rogers told the court. "I can see him yelling, but I can't reach him.
"I was his best friend," she said. "I was as special to him like he was that special to me."