SALEM, Mass. — Thu Nguyen was tortured in a slave camp, escaped from Vietnam by boat, and then survived gastric cancer only to meet his death while delivering a bogus Chinese food order to a Lawrence housing project on July 30, 2009.
Yesterday, Daniel Lee Lopez, a 24-year-old father of four, was found guilty of Nguyen’s involuntary manslaughter and will spend the next 15 to 18 years in state prison. Jurors also found Lopez guilty of unarmed robbery but acquitted him on the most serious offense of first-degree murder, which carries a life sentence in prison.
Lopez’s accused accomplice, Ronny Ramos, 20, was found not guilty of unarmed robbery and larceny charges. Just after noon, Ramos walked out of Salem Superior Court a free man.
Nguyen’s wife and children sobbed and held one another as the verdicts were read yesterday, bringing the week-long trial to end.
“There are no words to be used to describe my family’s feeling of sorrow and suffering,” Nguyen’s daughter, Candy, said as she addressed the court before Lopez was sentenced. “Why did you do that to my dad? ... He was a very nice man. He was peaceful.”
Her father made tips of 50 cents to $1 on food orders he delivered. He used that money, and anything else he made, to help her attend Merrimack College. Her dad encouraged her to stay in school until she got her doctorate, she said.
Candy Nguyen asked how someone could be “so cruel and so brutal,” allowing her father to be suffocating, having a seizure, with foam coming from his mouth, and “go though his pockets?”
“With all the hardship he survived it’s been so difficult for my mother to understand the way he died,” Candy Nguyen said.
Prosecutors alleged Lopez and Ramos called the Evergreen Restaurant at 105 S. Union St. that night and placed a bogus Chinese food order with the intent of stealing the food and robbing Nguyen.
But at 10 p.m., Nguyen was struck, fell to the ground and fractured his skull in the sidewalk near the Stadium Projects, a low-income housing development near Lawrence High School. Lopez was convicted assaulting Nguyen, which led to his death, and then robbing him after he fell to the ground.
Nguyen died the following day at Tufts Medical Center. During the trial, Dr. Marie Cannon, a state medical examiner, testified that Nguyen suffered a 5-inch skull fracture. She said his cause of death was blunt force head trauma that led to fatal brain bleeding.
In Lopez’s defense, his attorney called Dr. William Stewart, an expert witness in emergency room medicine. Stewart said Nguyen suffered from liver cirrhosis and had a portion of his stomach removed due to gastric cancer. The conditions resulted in blood clotting problems and bone frailty, Stewart said.
The trial was marked by prosecution witnesses from Lawrence who said they couldn’t remember or didn’t want to testify about what happened on July 30, 2009. Witness Wainer Caba, 20, of Lawrence, flat out admitted on the stand he didn’t want to testify.
Before the trial started, a Methuen man was arrested for calling Caba a “chota,” which means rat or snitch in Spanish, at the Salem courthouse. Cesar Jimenez, 33, was arrested and charged with intimidating a witness. Jimenez’s girlfriend is Lopez’s mother.
At sentencing yesterday, prosecutor James Gubitose asked Judge David Lowy to sentence Lopez to life in prison, which he could for the robbery conviction, and 15 to 20 years in prison on the involuntary manslaughter charge. Gubitose called the crimes “deliberate, cowardly and planned.”
Defense attorney Aviva Jeruchim, however, asked Lowy to consider Lopez’s age at the time of the crime, 21, and his “very nominal” criminal record up until then. She asked for a 4 to 6 year prison sentence on the manslaughter charge and probation on the unarmed robbery charge.
“He was very young and acted in youthful ways that lacked discretion,” she said.
Lopez has four children, ages 5, 4, 3 1/2 and 2, Jeruchim said.
Lowy listened to the sentencing recommendations from the attorneys, Candy Nguyen’s impact statement in the courtroom and also read, to himself, a written impact statement from Phu Nguyen, Thu’s only son.
“Mr. Nguyen poured everything he had into his children and his family. He worked hard. He valued kindness and work,” Lowy said.
The judge acknowledged the “incredible pain” Lopez’s actions caused.
“Over a bag of food he didn’t want to pay for, someone had to die,” the judge said.
Lopez showed no emotion when the verdict was handed down or his sentenced was imposed.
Follow staff reporter Jill Harmacinski on Twitter under the screenname EagleTribJill.