Just yards from where Valentino Arenas assassinated a California Highway Patrol officer in hopes of gaining membership in a street gang, a Pomona judge sentenced the 16-year-old youth Thursday to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
During a nearly four-hour hearing, family members and a CHP commander urged Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Philip Gutierrez to "send a message" that murders like that of Officer Thomas Steiner on the courthouse steps would result in the harshest possible punishment.
Afterward, Steiner's widow, Heidi, 35, said she was thrilled that Arenas would spend the rest of his life behind bars.
"It's a lot of comfort that my son is not going to have to grow up going to parole hearings," she said.
Arenas' mother, Irene, left the courtroom sobbing. A companion said the family would have no comment.
Defense attorney Joe Borges blamed Arenas' crime on poor role models and his use of methamphetamine.
"It's just a tragedy all the way around," he said. "We have to do something about methamphetamine, gangs and convict fathers who give their sons no guidance whatsoever." The boy's father is serving an eight-year prison term for armed robbery, the attorney said.
In imposing the sentence, Gutierrez focused on the wanton nature of the crime. It showed a "high degree of cruelty" and was done solely because Arenas, who drove by the courthouse April 21 searching randomly for a lawman to kill, wanted to impress a large and violent local gang, the judge said in court.
Arenas, who hunched over the defense table and did not raise his eyes during almost the entire hearing, stood just before being sentenced to offer an unemotional and brief apology to the courtroom gallery, packed with more than 50 peace officers and relatives of Steiner.
"If I was in my right mind, it wouldn't have happened," said the slightly built youth, dressed in a crisp tan shirt and loose khaki pants with orange manacles circling his waist. "I hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive me."
Arenas pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in December.
Steiner, 35, was leaving Pomona Superior Court after testifying in a traffic case when Arenas aimed a revolver he had stolen that day from his grandfather, shouted a gang slogan and fired repeatedly
"For that I hate you," Heidi Steiner told the boy during a statement to the court. "Valentino, you can't fix this one with community service and counseling."
Arenas "just snuffed [Steiner] out like he was no more important than a bug," CHP Capt. Sharon Baker, the officer's commander, told the judge Thursday. "We have officers having difficulty with this whole thing.... It could have been them."
Steiner's father, Ronald, implored Gutierrez to consider what his slain son would have felt about the case.
"Tom would want the court to do the right thing and send a message to Mr. Arenas and to all out on the streets that if you choose to take a life, you will pay with your life."
Gutierrez imposed an additional 25 years to life for aggravated circumstances. He ordered Arenas, who was not eligible for the death penalty because he was a minor, to be housed in the California Youth Authority until age 18 and then transferred to an adult prison.
Arenas turns 17 in a week.
In her emotional appeal, Heidi Steiner told Gutierrez that her life was forever changed by having her husband taken from her "so violently and so suddenly."
She said she was constantly wondering what he felt and thought as he lay dying. "Did he see the gun pointed at him? Was he scared?"
Defense experts and other witnesses told the court that the high school dropout seemed to be coping with his troubled life before the slaying, which came after he had been found guilty of three juvenile offenses, including possession of a firearm.
Steiner lived in Long Beach and worked out of the CHP's Santa Fe Springs office.