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Ventura County

Gang Member Gets 32 Years to Life in Slaying

Courts: Prosecutors say Benny Lopez played the biggest role in bludgeoning of William Zara, who was hit repeatedly with a bat.


A west Ventura gang member who took part in a group attack that ended the life of a Ventura teenager was given a sentence of 32 years to life Wednesday, the stiffest penalty handed down so far in the case.

Benny Lopez, 18, is the fourth defendant to be sentenced in the slaying of Ventura Theatre stagehand William Zara, 18, who was bludgeoned with a baseball bat by gang members who mistakenly thought he called police on their loud party.

Lopez received 25 years to life in prison, plus seven years for using a weapon and for committing the crime while he was a member of a street gang, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Maeve Fox.

One defendant, Ramiro Salgado, 21, still faces trial in Zara's death. His case is pending.

Terry Paul Schell, 23, Frank Olvera, 34, and Rosana Olvera, 37, were sentenced in August to 15 years in prison for second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. Schell and Frank Olvera are set to serve an additional four years for committing the crime as part of a gang, and Rosana Olvera was given an additional three years for being a gang associate.

But in presenting her case to jurors, Fox said Lopez played the biggest role in Zara's death, using a bat that Zara had picked up to defend himself. Lopez, who beat Zara even as he lay unconscious and dying, was the only defendant convicted of first-degree murder.

"Lopez was the one who actually killed him by striking him repeatedly in the head with the baseball bat," Fox said.

But because all of the defendants took part in the attack, some striking Zara with a shovel or stabbing at him with a knife, they were all charged with murder.

Lopez's attorney could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.

Prosecutors said that on Sept. 26, 1999, in the hours before the beating, about a dozen gang members and their friends were having a party at the apartment of Rosana Olvera and her husband, Frank.

After police interrupted the party and ordered the Olveras to keep the noise down, Rosana Olvera went to the apartment complex across the street, certain her neighbors, one of whom was Zara, had called the police. Authorities later said Zara had not made the complaint.

The Olveras and their friends, whom police say are all members or associates of the same gang, punched and kicked several neighbors, prompting Zara to arm himself with the bat to protect himself and his friends.

Unlike the August sentencing hearing, when emotions ran high as relatives of the victims and defendants packed into the courtroom, Wednesday's hearing was comparatively quiet, Fox said. Zara's family, including his father, Sam Zara--who became a fixture throughout the lengthy trial--offered victim impact statements to the judge and the defendants at that time.

Lopez, whose formal sentencing was postponed while a new attorney took on his case and considered an appeal, was made to sit through the August hearing so family members would not have to go through the process again.

Fox said she was satisfied with the hefty sentence Lopez received but felt sadness for all the families.

"I'm gratified in a sense," Fox said. "But in a way, I also just regret the utter waste of life this case represents, both from the victim's side and defendants' side."

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