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Hunt still on for Mexican linked to Kanawha sniper case

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The case will remain open against an alleged Mexican drug lord with ties to the 2003 Kanawha County sniper slayings, a Kanawha judge said Wednesday.

After speaking with prosecutors, Circuit Judge Duke Bloom did not dismiss a 2011 indictment alleging that Gilberto "Tito" Lopez trafficked large amounts of methamphetamine into Kanawha County.

Kanawha County Assistant Prosecutor Don Morris told the judge that, every week, he talks about Lopez with Charleston police Lt. Steve Cooper, the lead detective in the sniper case.

"Issues have come up recently," he told Bloom, who then called Cooper and Morris to the bench to talk with him in private.

Authorities say Lopez, along with his brother Jaime, operated a multimillion-dollar drug trade that extended from Kanawha County to Elkhart, Ind., and was the reason behind the sniper-style shootings of three people outside Kanawha County convenience stores nearly a decade ago.

Shawn Thomas Lester, who pleaded guilty to one of the murders in July, allegedly targeted all three victims in retaliation for the theft of a drug-packed engine block that police said belonged to the Lopez brothers.

At a hearing last September, Cooper told Bloom that investigators traveled to Indiana, Ohio and Texas in search of Tito Lopez but could not track him down. Cooper said Lopez also had a few relatives in Kanawha County who didn't know where he was.

Border agents in Texas and other federal agents in Ohio and Indiana have been actively tracking Lopez, and authorities believe it is just a matter of time before he is captured, Cooper said at the time.

"If we knew exactly where he was," Cooper said after the hearing, "we'd have him in custody."

Jaime Lopez is in an Ohio prison on a drug-trafficking conviction.

According to an investigative report attached to Lester's court file, Tito Lopez called Charleston police Sgt. T.S. Palmer from a number in Mexico in 2011 because "he wanted to clear his name in the murder investigation."

Detectives learned that Tito Lopez did not speak English and arranged to have an interpreter present during the conversation, the report states. According to the report, Lopez apparently confirmed later in the interview that he had lived on Harmon Road, in the area of Davis Creek.

Lopez said he did not know Lester, and refused to discuss any topic associated with drug dealing.

Several other people close to the case confirmed in interrogations that Lopez and Lester knew each other well, according to transcripts of those interrogations. At least one person said the two men seemed to have a "good relationship."

Last month, Bloom sentenced Lester to 40 years in prison for his involvement in the killing of Jeanie Patton, who was shot in the head outside a Campbells Creek gas station on Aug. 14, 2003.

She was the second of three Kanawha County residents killed that month with a scoped .22-caliber Magnum Marlin rifle. Okey Meadows Jr. was shot the same night as Patton, outside a Cedar Grove Go-Mart. Gary Carrier Jr. was killed outside a Go-Mart on Bigley Avenue in Charleston four days earlier.

Lester originally faced first-degree murder charges in all three deaths. When he agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder in Patton's death, prosecutors dropped the other charges.

Police say Carrier and Patton's husband, Marty Walker, stole an engine block from Lester's garage on Rutledge Road that contained hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of rare, pink methamphetamine that belonged to Lopez.

Lester allegedly targeted Carrier and Patton in retaliation for the theft. Meadows was killed at random, to throw off the investigation, police said.

Reach Kate White at kate.white@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.


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