What's a Mother to Do?

When Sophia Lopez-Espindola started Mothers Against Gangs in Phoenix, she wanted to stem the gang violence that had claimed her son's life and to keep her other five children out of trouble.

Last fall, when asked by New Times whether she felt she had succeeded in saving her kids from the temptations of street crimes, Lopez-Espindola answered, "Definitely, yes."

But now her oldest daughter -- described in court records as a transient street gang member -- is in jail charged with first-degree murder, armed robbery and drug offenses. And Lopez-Espindola has left Mothers Against Gangs, turning the organization over to another community group, Chicanos Por La Causa.

Venus Lopez, 19, is accused, with Gilbert Martinez, 23, of committing the June 1 carjacking in west Phoenix that left an innocent bystander dead. Although police say the carjacking victim actually fired the fatal shot, Lopez and Martinez are being charged under the felony murder law that says a person who commits a crime resulting in someone's death can be charged with that death.

Police say Martinez is a documented member of the Westside 24th Avenue Crazy Chicanos. Lopez, while called a gang member in court papers, is not documented as one in police files, according to Sergeant P.J. Ferrero.

"This is shocking," says José Oromi, program manager for Save the Children, an international nonprofit group that had joined forces with Mothers Against Gangs, pledging hundreds of thousands of dollars to support its efforts.

What has shaken Oromi and others is not the change in operations at the center, but the fact that Venus Lopez, who had spoken out locally and nationally against gang violence, has gotten into such serious trouble. Oromi, who is based in Connecticut, had not heard anything about Lopez's arrest until he was called by New Times.

He says Lopez-Espindola decided to step down about three months ago from the organization she founded in 1992. Oromi says she cited personal reasons then and helped bring in Chicanos Por La Causa as her successor, but made no mention of any problems with her daughter. But court records show that around that time -- in late March -- a criminal complaint was filed against Venus Lopez, accusing her of three felony drug charges. Prosecutors allege she possessed a cocaine-based narcotic, marijuana and drug paraphernalia on November 5.

Oromi says his organization was concerned then about Lopez-Espindola's ability to expand the program in concert with Save the Children.

"We felt Sophia had taken it about as far as she could," Oromi says. Others had tried previously to help Lopez-Espindola address administrative struggles at the organization.

Oromi met Venus Lopez in Phoenix and in Connecticut, where she came to address the Save the Children board of directors. Venus and her sister Starr, then 16, were among six teenagers on a panel who spoke about preventing gang violence. Venus had graduated from a charter high school and, according to her mother, wanted to join the Army. Both sisters -- as well as their other siblings -- worked at the Mothers Against Gangs center. In January, a photograph of the pair with former presidential aide George Stephanopoulos (who also attended the Connecticut meeting) ran on the teen page of the Arizona Republic under a headline that said "Way to Go."

Associates of Sophia Lopez-Espindola say they have not been in contact with her. They say they are confused about what is happening with Mothers Against Gangs and were upset to hear about Lopez's arrest.

"This is huge. It's just so sad," says neighborhood organizer Donna Neill. "I can't even imagine what she's going through."

Lopez-Espindola did not return a call for this story. Venus Lopez, who's in the Maricopa County Jail on an $885,000 bond, declined requests for interviews.

Court and police records reveal that after Lopez was accused of the drug offenses, she allegedly got into more serious trouble.

Venus Lopez and an accomplice -- possibly Martinez -- are alleged to have committed another carjacking on May 29, just before 7 p.m., outside a business at 20th Avenue and Camelback. Police say a 35-year-old woman was returning to her car when the pair pointed a gun and stole her car.

Three days later, Danny Marquez, 18, was leaving a Circle K at 4301 West Thomas with his pregnant girlfriend when a woman pressed a shotgun into his side and demanded the keys to his car. Police say Marquez gave her the keys and the pair drove away. When Marquez fired 10 shots at the fleeing suspects, one bullet struck and killed Jonathan Ward, 23, as he walked nearby.

Court records show that although Lopez has denied involvement in the crimes, both she and Martinez have been identified in photo lineups as the ones who were involved. Martinez, who has a criminal record and is also called a gang member in court documents, has admitted his involvement and implicated Lopez in the fatal carjacking, police say.

It's not the first time one of Lopez-Espindola's children has been charged with a crime. A few years ago, another son, then a juvenile, was accused of shoplifting a 12-pack of beer. Lopez-Espindola says she asked the judge to make her son spend a least a night in jail rather than get a slap on the wrist. He served a weekend.

But with Lopez facing the most serious of crimes, her mother could be torn between supporting her and holding to her philosophy of making young people she worked with responsible for their actions.

"We don't see them as gang members," Lopez-Espindola told New Times in September. "We see them as kids. And we will do anything we can to help them, but once they cross the line, we'll prosecute them to the fullest."

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin