Girl's killing nets 5-year sentence

Defendant enters Alford plea after eyewitness fails to name gunman

October 01, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,melissa.harris@baltsun.com

The intended target, prosecutors say, was Lee Dotson, a member of an O'Donnell Heights gang engaged in a vicious, weeks-long turf war.

But the bullet hit his 16-year-old girlfriend, Estefany Gonzalez. Dotson, the only eyewitness to the crime, refused to name her killer.

Yesterday Juan Hernandez, the man prosecutors believe killed the former Patterson High School student, entered an Alford plea - an acknowledgment that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict but not an admission of guilt - to second-degree murder and handgun charges. He made the plea as part of a deal with prosecutors for a five-year prison sentence.

Hernandez's defense attorney, William Purpura, told Circuit Judge John Addison Howard that a five-year sentence normally would not be "anywhere close to appropriate" for murder. But in this case, because of the lack of witnesses, it was, he said.

Dotson "refused to cooperate in any way with the Baltimore City Police Department," prosecutor Lisa Phelps said. Phelps said the state's second witness did not see the crime but overheard Dotson say that "Juan" had "shot at" him.

The second witness was subsequently shot with the same gun used to kill Gonzalez. He is paralyzed from the waist down.

"The state had difficult evidentiary issues, but if they overcame those, my client faced life in prison," Purpura said.

Phelps said that in March 2007 a violent turf war broke out after members of a gang called the Untamed Gorillas beat up a member of the Toone Street Bangers.

Prosecutors say the Toone Street gang retaliated, with Hernandez attempting to kill Dotson, a member of the Untamed Gorillas, as he walked through a nearly empty public housing project on the far eastern edge of the city.

The bullet struck Gonzalez in the shoulder and then went into her chest. Dotson left her there. A passer-by discovered her in a parking lot in the 6200 block of Toone Street.

Yesterday, Gonzalez's guardian, Gennette Washington, wept as she told Howard that she forgave Hernandez but couldn't forgive herself for allowing Gonzalez to move to Baltimore to live with her father a few months before her death.

"I'm so lost without her," Washington said. "She wasn't my child, but it felt as though she was my baby."

Washington's mother, Elba Ortega, took Gonzalez in when she was an infant. When Ortega died in 2001, Washington took guardianship of the 10-year-old. But she wanted to leave her school in Newark, Del., so Washington allowed her to move in with her father on Eastern Avenue, where he had moved after Ortega's death.

By the time of the shooting, Gonzalez had been expelled from Patterson High School and was staying with a girlfriend in O'Donnell Heights.

"She's not my biological sister," Washington said. "My mother raised her, but I wanted to give her the life my mother couldn't give us. A family. A home. I wanted her to be able to grow up ... to graduate from high school, to go to prom, to do things I never got to do. She was at the wrong place at the wrong time."

"Maybe he'll change his life," Washington added. "Everyone should get a second chance."

Hernandez declined to say anything to the judge, but he was escorted out of the courtroom in tears.

Hernandez's five-year sentence will be served without parole, followed by five years of probation. If he violates probation, he could face up to 25 years in prison.

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