A man convicted of gunning down his best friend outside an Indio house party was sentenced Wednesday to 40 years to life in state prison.
Steven Lopez, 21, was found guilty in October of second-degree murder and a sentence-enhancing allegation of discharging a firearm in the May 27, 2016, killing of 22-year-old Jose Arriaga, who was shot around 10 times outside a home in the 47500 block of Calle Zafiro. A friend drove Arriaga to John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Indio and he was subsequently airlifted to Desert Regional Medical Center in Palm Springs, where he died.
Lopez and Arriaga, described as best friends by prosecutors, attended a house party on Calle Zafiro the night of the shooting. They were seen showing off firearms to each other during the gathering, then went outside at some point just prior to the gunfire, prosecutors said.
Following the shooting, a person was seen by eyewitness and on surveillance footage speeding away from the scene on a motorcycle.
Lopez was arrested three days later in Indio, when police found him riding in a car that was stopped on Jefferson Street, near Fred Waring Drive. A motorcycle key and a firearm were found inside the vehicle, though court documents state the gun was not the murder weapon, which has never been recovered.
Deputy District Attorney Samantha Paixao told jurors that despite his best friend’s murder, Lopez was nowhere to be found in the days following the killing, and his cell phone was turned off. The murder weapon was never recovered, nor was a green motorcycle which Paixao said several people linked to Lopez.
Defense attorney John Dolan countered there was no proof that Lopez was the rider seen fleeing the scene on the night of the shooting. He also claimed only one witness placed Lopez at the scene, with other partygoers telling police and attorneys that they never saw Lopez or his motorcycle at the Calle Zafiro home that night.
The only witness who offered any kind of physical description of the motorcyclist described the rider as a white man in his 40s or 50s with long hair, Dolan said.
“There is no physical evidence that shows that Steven Lopez is linked to this killing,” according to Dolan, who said the only forensic evidence in the case was Arriaga’s DNA on the trigger of his own gun, which was found outside the home near his body.
A motive was unclear, but Lopez shot Arriaga as the two were saying goodbye, according to Paixao.
“He lured his friend into a comfortable state, and as (Arriaga) turned around to go back inside, where the rest of everybody was hanging out, his friend shot him in cold blood,” the prosecutor said.
She alleged that when the two were comparing guns inside the house, Lopez was able to see that Arriaga’s gun was unloaded, giving him knowledge that he could catch Arriaga unaware, showing planning and premeditation in the slaying. Live rounds that had apparently fallen out of Arriaga’s .38 revolver were found near the shooting scene.