LANCASTER – A 38-year-old felon accused of shooting to death a Lancaster man riding his all-terrain vehicle in the desert must stand trial, a judge ruled after a preliminary court hearing Wednesday.
Arturo Lopez was held to answer to a murder charge, with an allegation that he personally and intentionally used a rifle to commit the crime, and three counts of possession of a firearm by a felon with one prior.
The charges stem from the shooting death of 47-year-old Lancaster resident Stephen Finson.
On the afternoon of Feb. 23, 2014, Finson went for a desert ride on his all-terrain cycle but did not return home. After a desperate all-night search by family members, Finson’s body was located the next morning by a search and rescue team near 135th Street East and Avenue H.
The Navy veteran was still wearing his helmet, and his Honda ATC 250R was upright some 40 to 50 feet north of the dry wash, sheriff’s officials said.
An autopsy revealed that Finson died from a gunshot wound to the head, believed to have come from a .30-caliber bullet that went through the back of his helmet and exited through his open face mask, according to court testimony by Sgt. Robert Martindale of the Sheriff’s Homicide Bureau.
More than a month after Finson’s death, and two weeks after a $10,000 reward was offered to help solve the crime, authorities were tipped off to Lopez.
Sheriff’s homicide detectives searched Lopez’s residence on April 30 and found a .22 rifle and a .22 caliber revolver in a shallow hole near a fence on the outskirts of the property, Martindale testified.
They also found a black scope on a stack of paint cans in a metal shed on the property, Martindale testified.
Martindale was one of three witnesses who testified during the two-day preliminary court hearing for Lopez.
Also taking the witness stand was Lopez’s friend, Gerardo “Green Eyes” Amaya. Amaya testified that he was riding in a vehicle with Lopez on Feb. 23, 2014, when Lopez stopped the car on Avenue H and said he wanted to “test fire a new pistol.” Amaya said Lopez got out the car and fired a semi-automatic handgun twice towards the desert. Amaya said he remained in the car and did not see if Lopez hit anything.
Lopez’s former live-in girlfriend, Vanessa Burks, testified that Lopez told her that he thought he had shot and killed someone.
Testifying on Tuesday, Burks said Lopez told her that he and a friend named “Green Eyes” went to scare a man and ended up shooting him.
Burks said Lopez made the admission after they had watched a news broadcast about Finson’s death and right as the two were getting high on methamphetamines. She said she initially did not believe Lopez because he was known for being a “prankster.”
“He told me ‘Vanessa, I’m serious,’” Burks said. She also testified that Lopez looked scared, confused and lost.
“He asked me to hide him, and I said no because I was having a hard enough time hiding myself,” Burks testified, adding that there was an outstanding narcotics warrant for her arrest at the time.
Asked if Lopez told her what happened to the gun, Burks said, “It was supposedly ground down and gotten rid of.”
Burks also testified that she and Lopez were heavy meth users during their 14-year relationship. Burks said that when she lived with Lopez, “he’d be outside all the time shooting rabbits and squirrels” with a shotgun. She said Lopez also fired his shotgun inside the home sometimes as a prank.
Burks testified that Lopez once shot at her with a .22 rifle after the two had a fight a few years ago. “I heard bullets coming by head,” Burks said, adding that she took off running down the road.
Lopez’s defense attorney argued that the murder charge should be dismissed because there was no physical evidence connecting Lopez to the murder, authorities were relying on testimony from a meth addict, and the weapon used to kill Finson had not been found.
The motion was denied and Lopez was held to answer on all four felony counts.
He is due in court for a second arraignment on June 11. If convicted as charged, Lopez faces 25 years to life in state prison.
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