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'I just grabbed my gun for some reason': Trial opens in freeway shooting death of 6-year-old

SANTA ANA CA JANUARY 18, 2024 - Marcus Anthony Eriz, right, with public defender Randall Bethune during the opening statements on Jan. 18, 2024, in Eriz's trial for the killing a 6-year-old Aiden Leos in a road-rage incident on the 55 Freeway in May 2021. Eriz is accused of fatally shooting Aiden Leos on May 21, 2021 as his mom drove him to kindergarten. (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Marcus Anthony Eriz, right, with public defender Randall Bethune during Thursday's opening statements in Eriz's murder trial. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times)

The bullet that killed 6-year-old Aiden Leos punched a small hole in the trunk of his mother's silver Chevrolet, a few inches from the license plate.

The round traveled through the car's back seat, through his booster seat and into the child's back, passing through his liver, lung and heart. He was already lifeless, minutes later, when an off-duty police officer found him bleeding on the side of the 55 Freeway near his screaming mother and tried to revive him.

When investigators caught up to 24-year-old Marcus Eriz after an intensive 16-day manhunt, he said that the Chevrolet's driver, Aiden's mother, had flipped him off in traffic. But he otherwise offered scant insight as to why he took hold of his 9-millimeter semiautomatic gun and fired into a stranger's car that morning in May 2021.

Read more: Pair arrested in apparent road rage shooting of Orange County boy

"I just grabbed my gun for some reason ... shot at them," Eriz told an interrogator, according to a transcript presented in Orange County Superior Court on Thursday, where Eriz is on trial facing charges of second-degree murder and shooting at a motor vehicle.

"This is not a road rage case," Deputy Dist. Atty. Daniel Feldman told jurors in his opening statement, but rather about the defendant's "callous and total disregard for human life."

Eriz had been a passenger in his girlfriend Wynne Lee's Volkswagen at rush hour on the morning of May 21. They were on the 55 Freeway near Chapman Avenue and headed north to Riverside County, where they worked together at a collision-repair shop.

Joanna Cloonan had strapped her son Aiden into his booster seat and was driving him to kindergarten on the same stretch of freeway. He had just turned 6. By Cloonan's account, the Volkswagen cut her off in the carpool lane, forcing her to hit her brakes, and its driver, Lee, flashed a peace sign she interpreted as sarcastic.

Cloonan followed the Volkswagen for a short distance, then changed lanes to pass and extended her middle finger at the other car, "something she would come to regret beyond comprehension," the prosecutor told jurors.

As Cloonan pulled away, she heard a sound like a rock hitting her car and her son cry out in pain. She pulled to the side of the freeway and unstrapped him. "Please help," she repeated frantically to a 911 dispatcher. "He's bleeding to death. ... I'm on the freeway."

An off-duty Seal Beach police officer, Joe Garcia, saw the commotion and pulled over to help. He performed CPR and carried the boy to the ambulance that transported him to Children's Hospital of Orange County, but the boy was pronounced dead within the hour.

A motorist witnessed part of the incident and managed to snap a blurry photo of the Volkswagen as it pulled away, which gave investigators a focus as they launched a massive manhunt. There was a conspicuous memorial at the shooting site, posters that said "Who shot Aiden?" hung up and down the freeway, and by early June the reward had climbed to $450,000.

Around that time, when a co-worker told Eriz that his girlfriend's Volkswagen resembled the car police were looking for, he parked the car at his family's house in Whittier and began driving to work in his truck. He and Lee, who was 23, were taken into custody at their home in Costa Mesa days later.

The shooting resulted from "a momentary lapse of reason by a 24-year-old guy who had very little life experience," Deputy Public Defender Randall Bethune told jurors Thursday.

Read more: Boy killed in freeway road rage shooting is mourned: 'Too pure and innocent for this world'

"The man who confesses was aware of the consequences," he said, but "the man who pulled the trigger" was not. After the shooting, Eriz's girlfriend asked why he'd done it. "He didn't have a good answer as to why he did what he did, right then," Bethune said. "He just didn't have an answer."

Eriz went to work unaware that he had killed the boy, the defense attorney said, describing him as "a 24-year-old guy who likes to play video games and watch YouTube" rather than follow the news, which left him in the dark for days about what he'd done.

When he found out, the defense attorney said, he didn't turn himself in because he was "frozen with fear," though he did not get rid of the gun or flee the area.

"He's not a monster," Bethune told jurors. "He's just a young guy who made a mistake."

The trial continues in the Santa Ana courtroom of Superior Court Judge Richard King. Lee, who faces a felony charge of accessory after the fact to the crime, is scheduled to be tried separately.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.