First day of testimony begins in El Jebel double-homicide trial
It had been a normal summer Saturday for the Lopez family in El Jebel. They watched soccer, went to a church fair in Carbondale and came home a little before 11 that night.
The family was winding down from the busy day. The mother, Mayra Lopez, was enjoying a bowl of ice cream. The two teenage sons, Jesse and Eliseo Jr., were getting ready for bed.
Then the sons heard commotion break out in another part of the house. An argument in Spanish had erupted, the family dog was barking and they heard pops of gunfire.
Jesse was scared and stayed in his room as he heard his mother call for help from Heribert Amaya, a family relative who lived with them in the Sopris Village subdivision. Eliseo Jr. had been in a bathroom brushing his teeth.
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“I was scared and didn’t know what to do,” Jesse Lopez, now 15 and a sophomore at Aspen High School, testified at trial Monday in Eagle County District Court. “She was breathing heavily.”
Lopez was the first witness for the prosecution in its case against Williams Anderson Amaya, 35, who faces two charges of murder in the first degree, two counts of attempted murder in the first degree, and tampering with physical evidence in the killings of Mayra Lopez, 40, and Eliseo Lopez, 42. The couple, who were originally from El Salvador, were married 16 years.
Amaya has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
A 12-member jury that includes two alternates — seven men and seven women are on the panel — will be tasked with determining whether Amaya was criminally insane at the time of the murders, which took place July 12, 2014.
Jesse recalled that he heard Amaya, his cousin who had rented a room at the home since November 2013, threaten to kill him and his brother if they called police. When he heard the front door close, Jesse ran from his room to see what had happened, he said.
Jesse ran to a neighbor’s house, where he hid under a truck in the driveway. Other inhabitants of the Lopez house — Jesse; cousin Heribert Amaya, who is Williams’ brother, and his wife and baby — got in a vehicle and left, later contacting police in person. Before they left, Amaya was in the driveway, holding a handgun and staring at the passengers in the car as they backed out, Heribert testified.
Amaya would later reload the handgun, firing two more shots at the mother and two more at the father, said Chief Deputy District Attorney Joe Kirwan. Both victims were shot in the head as well as other parts of their bodies, he said.
Prosecutors also played Jesse’s 911 call to an Aspen dispatcher. He made the call as he sought safety under the truck. His voice was composed as he told the dispatcher that “there’s blood all over.” The dispatcher stayed on the phone with him for a good 10 minutes as authorities from the Eagle and Pitkin county sheriff’s offices and Basalt police were en route to the scene.
Prosecutors showed family pictures to the jury — Kirwan described them as the “quintessential American family: hardworking and loving” — as well as the mother and father lying in pools of blood.
“This home became the house of horror at about 11 p.m. on the night of July 12, 2014,” Kirwan said in opening arguments.
Defense: more to the story
Public defender Reed Owens, meanwhile, told the jury in the defense’s opening statement that Amaya had been plagued by psychological issues not readily apparent.
“It is difficult to draw a straight line for a mental illness and look at it as a perfect, existing thing,” Owens said. “It’s complex and doesn’t just operate in a straight line.”
Amaya’s mental issues dated back to at least 2012, when he told his church group in Glenwood Springs that he was the son of Lucifer. He said the same thing to his wife, Owens said, adding that Amaya was involuntarily placed into a mental health program in Glenwood Springs after he nearly strangled his wife.
“He doesn’t know what is going on,” Owens said. “He’s got great pressure, and he’s not sure what is wrong.”
Amaya’s wife later divorced him. Amaya worked at a pool and spa company in Glenwood Springs.
“He doesn’t have partners. He’s insolated in his job and in his personal life,” Owens said.
As Amaya kept things to himself, his mental woes grew progressively worse, culminating with the murders, Owens said.
“Williams Amaya thought he had to kill them because he is criminally insane,” Owens said, noting that a court-appointed state psychiatrist interviewed him and concluded he has a mental disorder. “At the end of this case, we won’t be asking you to release him. We will ask you to agree with the independent state doctors to find him not guilty by reason of insanity, where he can go to a state hospital and he will be safe, and where the community will be safe.”
Prosecution: killings were calculated
Kirwan postulated that Amaya’s actions on the day of the murders showed a man who had well thought out his crimes. He got his Honda Civic’s oil changed at Big O Tires that morning in Basalt and then had breakfast at Red Rock Diner in Carbondale.
He then drove to Cabela’s, a sporting goods chain store in Grand Junction, where he paid $10 for a background check to buy a firearm. He then dropped more than $300 for a .38 caliber handgun and two boxes of ammunition. Later, he had lunch at Olive Garden in Grand Junction before driving back to the Roaring Fork Valley and having yogurt in Basalt, Kirwan said, showing jurors the receipts of Amaya’s transactions that day.
After that, he spent the rest of the day in his bedroom with a loaded gun, Kirwan said.
Authorities, having been told by family members that Amaya was the gunman, tracked him down at his place of work around 3 in the morning after the murders. They were able to find his cellphone location, later discovering his weapon and receipts in a work truck at the job site.
Amaya initially denied killing his aunt and uncle, placing blame on Jesse, Kirwan said. During his interrogation, he also told authorities he was related to Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian.
“This defendant knew what he was doing, he knew right from wrong, he could form the intent to commit these crimes just by his actions on the night of July 12, 2014,” Kirwan said. “He knew that if he started to play a little crazy, that was a way to get off of killing Eliseo and Mayra.”
Eliseo did not testify but attended Monday’s proceedings. The two sons now live with their aunt and uncle, Blanca “Edith” Argueta Amaya and Antonio Amaya, in Aspen. They too were in court, listening to the testimony through a Spanish translator on headphones. Antonio is the brother of Eliseo Lopez. Other relatives attended, as well.
Williams Amaya, now clean-cut, sat quietly through the proceedings, also listening to a Spanish version of the testimony on headphones.
Judge Paul Dunkelman is presiding over the trial, which is scheduled to run through Oct. 7.
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Pools in Aspen and Pitkin County will be allowed to open Monday, though COVID-19-related rules will apply.