A day in court used to be difficult for Veronica Lemus. It meant remembering the shooting death of her sister, comforting her mother whenever she cried and watching as her sister's killer sat in the San Fernando courthouse with a smirk on his face.
Fifteen years ago, the courthouse was her weakness, but it later became her strength. Lemus, who is now married and uses the name Lemus-Alvarez, works as a civil attorney in Burbank and hopes one day to become a prosecutor like the one she watched during those emotional days in the courtroom, Deputy Dist. Atty. Shellie L. Samuels.
"I wondered how such a petite woman could command such presence and authority," said Lemus-Alvarez, 32. "I knew then that's who I wanted to be and that's what I wanted to do."
Lemus-Alvarez was a senior at Kennedy High School in San Fernando during the 1987 trial of Carlos Montez Zepeda, who shot her 21-year-old sister, Patricia Lemus, in a San Fernando parking lot. She will never forget the despair on the faces of her mother, Maria, her two other sisters and three of her four brothers as they sat in the San Fernando courtroom, which felt as cold and sterile as the Holy Cross Hospital emergency room where Patricia died.
After Zepeda received a life sentence in March 1988 for killing Patricia, Lemus-Alvarez focused her energy on becoming a lawyer. She was sworn in to the California State Bar Assn. in June after graduating from the UCLA School of Law in 1999.
Now specializing in construction defect cases for a Burbank law firm, she dreams of one day working for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office "to fight for the rights of victims of violent crimes," she said. She has inquired about working for the department, but it is currently in the middle of a hiring freeze, officials said.
Lemus-Alvarez, who was just 17 when they met, has grown into an "amazing woman," Samuels said. "She managed to turn this tragedy into a life-changing experience. Her family is so proud of her."
Samuels and the Lemus family met again last month in San Fernando Superior Court, where Zepeda's 39-year-old brother, Omar, was tried for his role in Patricia's murder. He fled to Mexico after the slaying but had since returned to Los Angeles, where he was arrested two years ago. A jury convicted him May 1 of first-degree murder. He will be sentenced June 7.
"Finally, complete justice," Lemus-Alvarez said after the verdict was read.
It was a Sunday night, three days after Christmas 1986, and San Fernando youth were abuzz with anticipation of the New Year's celebration. Laurel Canyon Boulevard was packed with excited young people cruising up and down the busy street.
Many knew each other from school, but fights were still common on the boulevard, police said. Despite the holiday spirit, this day would be no different.
It started with a few bottles thrown at 24-year-old Omar Montez Zepeda as he rode his motorcycle through traffic. Fearing he would be outnumbered, he went home to get his brother Carlos. The brothers returned to the parking lot, Carlos with a .38-caliber revolver tucked in his waistband, said Det. Bob Vanina of the LAPD's Foothill Division.
Patricia Lemus had been driving home with her 11/2-year-old daughter, Vanessa, her 23-year-old brother, Ricky, and his 19-year-old girlfriend, Esther, when she pulled into a shopping center parking lot on Rinaldi Street to wait for traffic to die down. The adults got out of the car to talk with some friends, while Vanessa rested inside.
Suddenly, the Zepeda brothers, who were looking for those who tossed the bottles, rode in their direction on Omar's motorcycle. Carlos was wielding the gun as Omar circled around several cars "like Indians circling the wagons," Vanina said. They were looking for the man who provoked the earlier fight. But he was hiding behind the cars, including the one where Patricia's baby rested.
Most of the people in the parking lot ducked when they saw the gun, but Patricia ran to her child. "Don't shoot, don't shoot! My baby is in the car!" she shouted.
She climbed into the car to hide, but Carlos "just wanted to kill somebody," Deputy Dist. Atty. Samuels said in court.
He shot Patricia point blank in the face as she peered out of the driver's side window. She died the next day.
Samuels met the Lemus family on the first day of Carlos Zepeda's trial in early 1987. Everyone was there except Lemus-Alvarez's brother Danny, who was on military duty in Japan. They took an elevator up to the third floor, Samuels and Veronica's mother, Maria, who had assumed custody of Vanessa, talking the entire way.
The family immediately liked Samuels, especially when she spoke before the jury during opening statements.
"She has this presence about her," Lemus-Alvarez said. "And when she talks, everyone listens."