Joel Lopez Sr., 51, of Roma, Texas, has been sentenced to life in federal prison for a murder-for-hire plot to kill U.S. District Judge Ricardo Hinojosa – who had sentenced him to life imprisonment on drug trafficking convictions – and for conspiring with his wife to kidnap a Roma woman who purportedly owed him thousands of dollars for drugs, United States Attorney Tim Johnson announced today.
Lopez and his wife, Aracely Lopez-Gonzalez, were indicted in April 2008 and proceeded to trial separately before U.S. District Judge Melinda Harmon in Houston. After a one-week jury trial and two hours of deliberations, a jury found Lopez guilty of conspiracy to commit kidnapping and murder-for-hire. His wife pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against her husband after hearing one day of testimony. Last week, Judge Harmon, who presided over the trials and considered Lopez-Gonzalez cooperation, sentenced Lopez-Gonzalez to 108 months in federal prison without parole to be followed by a three-year-term of supervised release.
Lopez, who is currently serving a federal life sentence for a February 2006 drug conviction, was today sentenced today to a second life term of imprisonment by Judge Harmon for these convictions. In determining the sentence ultimately handed down, Judge Harmon considered the fact that Lopez was the leader of the murder-for-hire and kidnapping plot and he attempted to execute the plots while in federal prison.
In June 2007, while in federal custody, Lopez approached a fellow inmate at the Federal Detention Center in Houston to solicit the murder of Judge Hinojosa in McAllen for $2 million and a woman who lived in Roma for $1 million. Lopez believed the murder of Judge Hinojosa, who had imposed a life sentence for his drug convictions, would assist his pending appeal of that sentence. The Roma woman allegedly owed Lopez a drug debt of approximately $100,000. Lopez instructed the inmate to contact his wife upon the inmate’s release from custody and provided him with the contact information. In August 2008, Lopez was transferred to a federal prison in Pollock, La., after which the inmate, still in custody in Houston, received word through the toilet system piping from another floor that he was supposed to contact Lopez’s wife.
After this notification, the inmate instead contacted the U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) and the FBI. Together, the USAO and FBI worked proactively to foil the murder plot and prosecute Lopez and his co-conspirators. An extensive eight-month investigation by the FBI involved the cooperating inmate placing numerous recorded telephone calls to Lopez-Gonzalez from September 2007 to March 2008 and securing hundreds of hours of recorded conversations between Lopez at the jail in Louisiana and his wife in Roma, meetings between the cooperating inmate and Lopez’s wife, a daring and staged mid-day kidnapping of the Roma woman by law enforcement, extortionate calls to the family members (one of which knew of the fake kidnapping) and the carefully calculated drop of the $100,000 ransom demand. Lopez’s wife was arrested by FBI agents after receiving their share of the ransom demand ($50,000) and Lopez, still in custody, was subsequently indicted.
During the investigation, the inmate never left the custody of the U.S. Marshals Service and no harm came to either the Roma woman nor Judge Hinojosa.