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Man gets 16-to-life for killing 7-year-old

Little girl's parents express their grief over the 2008 killing

Gilberto Menchaca told a judge that, from time to time, he momentarily forgets his daughter, Maria, is no longer here and he looks expectantly for the cheerful 7-year-old. And then he remembers she is dead.

"When I come home from work, I want to see my daughter, but I never find her," he said, sobbing, as he referred to the child who was fatally gunned down July 6, 2008 during what police said was a dispute among adult gang members. Maria had been playing with a friend outside her Glendale home.

"My life has changed a lot — my daughter was my life — and it is very, very hard," the despondent father told 3rd District Judge Deno Himonas Thursday through a Spanish-speaking interpreter.

Losing Maria has not damaged not just one life but the lives of many people, Menchaca said.

"I hope this never happens to another family," he said. "Every day that I get up, I say, 'Never, never again.' "

The grieving father spoke at the sentencing of Gabriel Alejandro Alvarez, who is now 18 but who was 16 when he pulled the trigger on the shot that killed Maria.

Himonas imposed a prison term of 16-years-to-life for Alvarez, who pleaded guilty in March to first-degree felony murder as part of a plea bargain.

Police say Alvarez and two co-defendants, Frank Puga Benavidez, now 22, and Mae Goodman Johnson, now 17, got into a verbal spat with one of Maria's relatives earlier in the day.

The trio, after leaving the area, headed back later on, apparently seeking to kill Maria's cousin, Luis Menchaca.

Alvarez told the judge he did not mean to shoot Maria and apologized to her family for the pain he has caused.

"I truly am sorry for what I did," he said.

Defense attorney James Valdez said there is no way to right the wrong that has been done and said his client is remorseful. Valdez emphasized to the judge that Alvarez was 16 at the time and that he was under the influence of both alcohol and "idiots" who find the gang life glamorous.

Prosecutor Blake Hills characterized the entire episode as "a tragedy on many levels" — a beautiful child in the grave, a family that may never truly recover and a community that has been shaken to the core.

"It is a tragedy for the whole community because if this can happen to little Maria, then nobody is safe," he said.

However, Hills said using the word "tragedy" was perhaps slightly incorrect since it implies an element of accident. The shooting, he said, was no accident.

"It didn't just happen," Hills said. "This was something that was planned."

The slaying of an innocent child has roused Salt Lake City officials and residents and has prompted many anti-gang efforts by school, church, law enforcement and community groups.

Still, for the Menchaca family, there is one fewer at the table.

Maria's mother, Carmen, wept as she said how she misses her daughter constantly.

"We wish our little girl was here with us. It's very hard for us to see her little things, her clothing, her toys," she said. "My daughter was just starting her life. Nothing is the same ... it's just memories."

e-mail: lindat@desnews.com