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Ex-Teacher Is Sentenced in 1989 Slaying

Mark Morales gets 17 years to life for killing a party crasher in Mission Viejo. He fled the U.S. for seven years, then taught in L.A. until his arrest in 2000.

November 08, 2003|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

A former math teacher at Belmont High School in Los Angeles was sentenced Friday for murdering someone who had crashed a party he held 14 years ago for college friends at his parents' Mission Viejo home.

Mark Glen Morales, 36, must serve 17 years to life in prison for the shooting death of Steven Merritt, a 21-year-old student slain Feb. 26, 1989, after arriving with friends, uninvited and casually dressed, at Morales' party.

Morales was questioned three times in the week after the shooting but fled the country and remained abroad for seven years before returning and landing a teaching job in Los Angeles.

After sheriff's investigators reopened the "cold case" and interviewed more than two dozen people, Morales was arrested in Sherman Oaks in 2000, three months after getting married.

On Friday, Morales sat silently in a white shirt and black slacks as Orange County Superior Court Judge Frank F. Fasel handed down the compulsory, 17-years-to-life sentence required by laws in effect when the slaying occurred.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Carolyn Carlisle-Raines said Morales had evaded authorities for years in Mexico, Spain and Ireland with the aid of his family.

In an emotional statement read before the judge, Loretta Morales wept as she apologized for "my insistence my son leave.... I wanted my son alive. I wanted to stay alive."

Fasel also heard from the victim's mother, Ann Erickson, who wiped away tears as she described her memories of a loving and jovial son. Merritt was a budding photographer and had just finished construction of a patio on Erickson's home the last time she saw him alive.

"For 11 years we didn't know who had killed Steven," Erickson said. During that time, Morales "was traveling abroad, going to school and getting married -- all the things he took from Steven."

Authorities said trouble had started after one of Merritt's friends ridiculed the salsa music being played at the party for members of the International Club at Saddleback College.

When Merritt was picked up by friends who had left earlier, Morales followed in a black car, with its headlights off.

As they reached Cordova Park, Morales allegedly confronted Merritt and somehow got Merritt into his car. The two allegedly drove about a mile, got out and scuffled. Merritt was shot and killed.

Morales was tried for the killing last year, but the jury deadlocked 10-2 in favor of a conviction. A different jury found him guilty in August.

Merritt's brother Michael said after the sentencing that his family was pleased with the verdict but believed Morales deserved a tougher sentence under the current law.

The judge interrupted statements by family members several times, whenever they strayed from describing the pain caused by their loss and began to speak on other matters.

Except for acknowledging the judge's instructions on steps to follow if he intends to appeal the verdict and sentence, Morales made no statements in court. He winked and waved slightly to his wife, Patty, as sheriff's deputies led him out of the Santa Ana courtroom.

His family said Morales would appeal. "There's no way we're done with this," Patty Morales said.

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