A gasp filled a downtown Los Angeles courtroom Wednesday as a judge sentenced a former Compton laborer to 11 consecutive life prison terms for triggering a commuter train crash that killed 11 people, the deadliest train crash in Metrolink's history.
Convicted murderer Juan Manuel Alvarez sat silent, and the gasp, along with audible sighs, came from the gallery as Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William R. Pounders handed down the sentence. Pounders also criticized Alvarez for lacking genuine remorse for the crash. He told Alvarez, 29, that "if there were a sentence 'forever,' I would certainly give it to you."
During the eight-week trial, prosecutors had argued that Alvarez had intended to kill commuters as part of a sick attempt to gain attention from his estranged wife when he parked his sport-utility vehicle on the train tracks. A Metrolink passenger train plowed into the vehicle, struck a parked freight train and slammed into an oncoming commuter train.
But defense attorneys had said Alvarez never meant to harm anyone and described his actions as part of an aborted suicide attempt.
Pounders was not convinced.
"I don't believe for a minute you intended to kill yourself or harm yourself in any way," he said. "I think you were setting up a scenario so you could go back to your family."
Alvarez will not be eligible for parole. Defense attorney Michael Belter said he had filed a notice of appeal on Alvarez's behalf.
About half a dozen family members of victims who died in the Jan. 26, 2005, crash addressed the court Wednesday.
Standing at a nearby lectern, Elaine Parent Siebers, sister of crash victim William Parent, looked directly at Alvarez and requested that he look at her. Alvarez shifted his chair slightly to face her.
"Thank you for looking at me because I want you to know the pain you have caused me," she said. "You did a very bad and stupid thing. If you have tried to cause pain and anguish, you have definitely succeeded."
Siebers asked why, if Alvarez wanted to kill himself, he didn't simply lie down on the tracks.
"Because of your selfishness, you have bestowed this terrible nightmare upon us, and it will never end," she said.
Siebers' other brother, Robert Parent, a retired state prison guard, said he got satisfaction just from knowing the conditions under which Alvarez was going to spend the rest of his life.
"I wish you the most miserable life possible," said Henry Romero, nephew of 53-year-old victim Leonardo Romero.
Todd McKeown, whose brother Scott was killed in the crash, attended almost every day of the trial. His voice cracked as he recounted how his niece had broken down sobbing during a recent father-daughter dance at a bat mitzvah. She realized she would never again have a chance to dance with her dad, McKeown later said.
Alvarez, who in June was found guilty of 11 counts of first-degree murder and one count of arson, apologized to the victims' families during the trial. He made no statement Wednesday.
Lien Wiley, widow of crash victim Don Wiley, told Alvarez that although she was devastated by the loss of her spouse, she forgave the former laborer.
Wiley told the court that she believed that Alvarez never intended to harm anyone but himself. She blamed the severity of the crash on the Metrolink train company's use of a controversial "push-pull" system to operate trains.
But several speakers told Alvarez he was undeserving of forgiveness. Hope Alcala, whose son Manuel perished in the crash, said Satan would ultimately deal with Alvarez.
"Who knows if God will forgive you, because I can't," Alcala said.