Ernestina Bahena stood in 3rd District Judge Judith Atherton's courtroom and tried to talk about the son she lost to gang violence on the night of Nov. 6, 1999.

But it was hard to speak through her tears, and Bahena had to stop periodically to steady herself.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Bahena said through a Spanish interpreter Wednesday.

Bahena did not once look at Solomon Lee Johnson, 19, while she urged the judge to sentence him to life in prison for shooting her son, 16-year-old Wilber Canales, three times at close range.

"I would like him to never get out of prison. Never, never," Bahena said. "I have an empty space in my heart. I won't ever see my son again."

Bahena got her wish. Atherton, following prosecutors' recommendations, imposed a life sentence with the possibility of parole.

Investigators claimed Johnson, along with a group of fellow gang members, forced their way into a West Valley City apartment where members of a rival gang were partying. Johnson pulled out a .32-caliber pistol and started shooting, killing Canales and wounding 18-year-old Alex Suaste Molina.

Johnson agreed last July to plead guilty to capital murder to avoid a possible death penalty. The agreement assured he would receive a sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole. Without the agreement, Johnson would have been the youngest person in Utah in 40 years to face a possible execution.

Prosecutors also agreed to dismiss other cases pending against Johnson and said current investigations in which Johnson was the principal suspect would not result in charges.

The teenager cried Wednesday as he took responsibility for the death of Canales, a boy he had never met.

"I know what I did was horrible and wrong. I'm willing to do my sentence of life in prison," Johnson said. "There's nothing I can do to bring back the life I took. I'm sorry."

Atherton acknowledged Johnson's "unflinching responsibility for his conduct" as well as numerous factors that led up to the slaying. Johnson was "severely intoxicated" at the time of the attack, has a long history of drug and alcohol abuse, joined a gang when he was just 14 and was raised in an extremely dysfunctional family, the judge said.

However, she said, it still doesn't excuse his conduct.

"Do these factors add up to any way we can reason or make sense of what he did? They never will," she said.

Three other men were charged with murder and aggravated burglary, both first-degree felonies, for their involvement in the shooting. Juan Carlos Samora, 21, and Jan Ramos, 18, accepted plea agreements and pleaded guilty to lesser charges. Prosecutors dismissed the charges against 28-year-old Mario Cardenas. Samora drove the group to the apartment and situated his truck so the lights illuminated the front door. Ramos was in possession of a handgun during the attack and Cardenas also was present, charges state.


E-MAIL: awelling@desnews.com