Updated: Feb 26, 2020
WARNING: Some sources contain graphic images.
This is probably the most disturbing case I’ve covered here so far. I know I say that in a lot of true crime posts, but somehow I always end up outdoing myself in the worst way possible. It’s been referred to by numerous sources as the worst child abuse cases in U.S. history. This story contains references to child sexual abuse, so if that’s something you’d rather not hear, I won’t be offended if you click away. For the rest of you, thank you so much for being here. This is the story of Brianna Lopez.
There aren’t many details of Brianna’s early life. We do know she was born Brianna Mariah Lopez on February 14, 2002 in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Las Cruces is a town of about 100,000 people about 45 miles north of the Mexican border.
For all or at least most of her life, Brianna lived in a mobile home with her mother, 19-year-old Stephanie Lopez*, her father, 21-year-old Andy Walters, her grandmother, Patricia Walters, and her uncle — Stephanie’s twin brother — 19-year-old Steven Lopez. Brianna also had an older brother who was 18 months old at the time, but there’s no other information about there about him. Altogether, nine people lived in the trailer, though I’m not sure who the others were.
*the information in this post looks like it was reposted from a local news station, but the original article no longer exists
On the night of July 18th, 2002 Andy Walters got off work around 5 pm and arrived home around 6 pm. At about 8 pm, he picked up Steven Lopez at work. They went to buy a case of beer, then returned home.
Andy, Steven and Stephanie spent the rest of the evening at home with baby Brianna. Stephanie claimed she drank two or three beers before falling asleep around 10 pm. Steven would later say Stephanie drank five or six beers.
After Stephanie went to bed, Steven and Andy “played” with Brianna by throwing her in the air. She hit her head on the ceiling three times and was dropped on the floor twice. She was conscious and crying during this. Stephanie later said she never heard Brianna cry that night.
It wasn’t the first instance of abuse. A few weeks earlier, Stephanie witnessed Andy throwing baby Brianna in the air. She told him not to do this because it would hurt Brianna. Steven later admitted to “throwing Brianna in the air and not caching her.”
Andy later said he “bit Brianna on several occasions” and wasn’t the only family member who had done so. He said Stephanie often pinched and threw Brianna “out of frustration.” Steven also admitted to sexually abusing Brianna.
But back to the night of the 18th. Andy fell asleep at about 12:30 am and didn’t know where Brianna was. He woke up around 3 am and found Brianna on the floor close to “the” bed (I assume his bed). He wrapped her in a blanket and put her in a bouncer.
Stephanie woke up at some point in the early morning and noticed around 7 am that Brianna needed a diaper change. She noticed bruising on Brianna’s body and asked Andy about it, who said he and Steven “played a little rough with her.” Andy changed Brianna’s diaper and gave her a blanket.
Another report said Stephanie woke up around 9;45 am. I’m not sure if one of these reports was inaccurate, or if Stephanie woke up around 7, then went back to sleep and woke up again around 9:45.
At about 10 am on the morning of July 19, Stephanie checked on Brianna and noticed she wasn’t breathing. Most sources said she called 911, and one said Stephanie and Andy tried to give Brianna CPR. Another source said Brianna’s parents actually called her grandmother instead of 911. Remember, Brianna did live with one of her grandmothers — Patricia Walters — but I’m not sure if this refers to Patricia Walters or where she was at the time.
Brianna was taken Memorial Medical Center in Las Cruces, but already “appeared lifeless” when she got to the hospital. There were more attempts to resuscitate her, but they didn’t work. She was pronounced dead at 11:10 am.
Stephanie told hospital staff that Brianna had been hurt falling out of bed, but the autopsy results said otherwise. Brianna’s entire body was covered in bruises and bite marks. (Andy initially told police Brianna’s older brother caused the bite marks, but later admitted to causing them himself.) Brianna had fractures on her legs and arms, two broken ribs, skull fractures, bleeding of the optic nerves and brain swelling. The forensic pathologist concluded she died from “cranial and cerebral injuries” and that her injuries were a mix of old and new ones. Her death was listed as a homicide.
During the subsequent investigation, no photographs of Brianna were found. One surfaced later on a few news articles and blogs; it looks like her, but I’m not 100 % certain. With nothing else to work with, investigators took a picture of Brianna taken after her death and ‘touched it up,’ removing her bruises and creating the photo below.
I don’t normally like including pictures of dead bodies in these videos, though in this case I didn’t have much of a choice. There are far more graphic photos out there of Brianna, all taken after her death. I didn’t want to include them here since I’m not sure people would want to see them, but if you do want to look for yourself they are very easy to find online.
Steven and Stephanie Lopez and Andy Walters were arrested in connection with Brianna’s death. Patricia Walters and a man named Robert Walters, who I assume was another of her sons, also faced charges of failing to report child abuse.
I couldn’t find exact dates of arrests, but all five defendants went on trial at some point in the fall of 2003. Before the trial, Stephanie requested to have her trial separated from the other defendants. She knew the other defendants would be able to testify against her if their trials were held together (even though they didn’t end up doing this). Her request was denied.
The trial was moved to Albuquerque, about a 3 and a half hour drive north, because of the media coverage in Las Cruces. Andy’s lawyer said it was unlikely that four people had all committed murder, and that there was no physical evidence to tie Andy or Steven to a crime.
But the jury disagreed. On September 12, 2003, after deliberating for about a day, all five defendants were found guilty I believe of all the charges against them:
Andy Walters was found guilty of child abuse resulting in death, criminal sexual penetration of a minor, child abuse not resulting in great bodily harm and conspiracy to commit child abuse resulting in death. He was later sentenced to 57 years in prison. (Another source said he was sentenced to 63 years.)
Steven Lopez was found guilty of child abuse resulting in death, criminal sexual penetration of a minor and conspiracy. He was later sentenced to 51 years in prison.
Stephanie Lopez was found guilty of negligent child abuse resulting in death and negligent child abuse not resulting in great bodily harm. She was later sentenced to 27 years in prison.
Patricia and Robert Walters were found guilty of failing to report child abuse. They were sentenced to 60 days in jail.
In 2004, a Supreme Court ruling said that if there was a case with multiple defendants and one of them gave a statement that was incriminating to another, that statement couldn’t be used in trial unless that defendant who gave the statement testified at the trial. All of the defendants in Brianna Lopez’s murder trial gave statements like this but none of them testified at their trial. In 2006, the Court of Appeals reversed the convictions of Stephanie, Steven and Andy — who had all appealed their sentences — and they were set to be retried separately. But this ruling was reversed in 2007 and their initial sentences upheld.
Brianna Lopez was buried in a pauper’s grave in Doña Ana Cemetery. Nobody claimed her body, and her funeral was paid for by strangers. Dozens, if not hundreds of people came by, leaving flowers and other mementos. After awhile, her family put a locked cage around her grave to keep people away. But that didn’t seem to stop anyone — after the cage was put up, mementos were simply left outside the cage.
In or around 2010, a petition to remove the cage got over 200,000 signatures from people all over the world. Amy Orlando, the Chief Deputy district attorney at the time, wanted to find the owner of cemetery and hopefully have them override the family’s decision. The groundskeeper did eventually agree to rip down the fence by the grave so a bench could be put in as a memorial.
In a prison interview, Stephanie Lopez claimed she was not aware of the cage and would try to get it removed. But Susana Martinez, who prosecuted the case and who we’ll talk more about in a second, claimed she asked Stephanie if community could donate a headstone and Stephanie said no.
After Brianna’s death, a new bill was introduced that would informally come to be known as ‘the baby Brianna bill’ or’ Brianna’s Law.’ At the time of Brianna’s death, the maximum penalty for child abuse resulting in death was 18 years in prison. This new bill would change the penalty to an automatic life sentence if the child was younger than 12.
There’s conflicting information about this bill. Some sources said it would change the penalty to a life sentence. Others said it would only change it to a minimum sentence of 30 years. Another source said the penalty was a life sentence but with a possibility of parole after 30 years. This makes the most sense to me, both on its own and as an explanation for all the contradictory information.
The bill was signed into law in 2005. One of the people pushing it was Susana Martinez. Martinez was the district attorney of Doña Ana County at the time of Brianna Lopez’s death and prosecuted the case. She later served as the governor of New Mexico from 2011 to 2019. One of her campaign ads featured Brianna’s case.
While in prison, Stephanie Lopez was said to be quiet and well liked by other inmates, never causing any major problems. She also became a clerk for the prison’s chaplain, and requested prayer from at least one other inmate on a few occasions. Was this new found religion genuine, or merely an attempt to make herself look good? I’ll let you decide for yourself.
If it was the latter, it might have worked. Due to good behavior, Stephanie Lopez was set to be released in 2016. That date was pushed back to 2017, but then pushed up again to September 2016. At the time, I believe certain inmates had to serve at least 85 % of their sentence, but Stephanie wasn’t required to do this because, at the time, child abuse wasn’t considered a violent crime. I’m pretty sure the law has changed since then.
In or around 2010, a change.org petition was started to revoke Stephanie Lopez’s parole upon her release. The petition garnered over 60,000 signatures, but a 2011 comment from the person who started it seems to imply that their request was revoked.
Upon her release, Stephanie was transferred out of state as part of an “interstate compact.” At first, the state she would be moving to was undisclosed. It was later revealed that she would be serving her parole in the Plainview area, a city about 50 miles north of Lubbock in northern Texas. Needless to say, Plainview residents were not happy about this. Another change.org petition was started, but it only got about 1,600 signatures. I have no idea what results it got, if any, or where Stephanie Lopez is today.
The death penalty was repealed in New Mexico in 2009, but Susana Martinez has proposed to reinstate it for those convicted of child abuse resulting in death.
Andy Walters and Steven Lopez are serving their sentences out of state, though I’m not sure which state. They’re expected to be released in 2025 and 2022, respectively.
So, like I said earlier, Susana Martinez, Amy Orlando and several others pushed hard for Brianna’s Law, and they succeeded. But as happy as they were with these results, they wanted the law expanded from pretty early on. Their desired expansion would take away the age restriction, resulting in a life sentence for child abuse resulting in death for any child under 18 — not just those under 12.
The push for this expansion was really kicked into high gear after the death of Victoria Martens. Victoria was an Albuquerque girl who was killed on her 10th birthday — August 24, 2016. She was drugged, sexually assaulted, strangled and stabbed. Then her body was dismembered and wrapped in a blanket that was set on fire. Victoria’s mother, her mother’s boyfriend, and the boyfriend’s cousin were all charged in her murder.
Sadly, Brianna’s Law doesn’t seem to have worked here. Victoria’s mother, Michelle Martens, accepted a plea deal and faced between 12 and 15 years in prison. Her boyfriend, Fabian Gonzales, is still awaiting trial. Gonzales’s cousin, Jessica Kelley, also accepted a plea deal and is looking at between 20 and 50 years in prison. Unknown male DNA was found on Victoria’s body, and this man is being investigated as the fourth suspect, albeit as a John Doe.
After the death of Victoria Martens, lawmakers realized something. If she had been just three years older, Brianna’s Law wouldn’t have applied to her killers at all (though it didn’t seem to do much anyway).
The Brianna’s Law expansion was cleared by the New Mexico House of Representatives in 2016. It was approved by House Judiciary Committee in 2017 and moved to the state Senate in 2018. However, I couldn’t find much on it after that, and I don’t think it ultimately became law.
So that’s all I have for you today on Brianna Lopez. I know this is an extremely disturbing story, and I wondered if I should share it at all. But I do think it serves as a reminder that if you see anything suspicious, you should speak up — you just might save a life. It also shows us the passion so many people have to help others. Brianna’s own family didn’t seem to care about her much, but thousands of strangers did. They couldn’t save her in life, but they did everything they could to make sure she was honored in death.
Let me know what you think of this case in the comments.
If you suspect child abuse, please check the following resources:
State Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Numbers: https://www.childwelfare.gov/organizations/?CWIGFunctionsaction=rols:main.dspList&rolType=custom&rs_id=5
The Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline: http://www.childhelp.org/hotline/
or contact your local law enforcement agency