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    Mother testifies 55 freeway shooter smiled at her before firing gunshot that killed 6-year-old boy
    • January 23, 2024

    A mother on Monday described a passenger in another vehicle smiling at her shortly before he fired the gunshot that killed her 6-year-old son during an apparent road rage confrontation on the 55 Freeway in Orange.

    Joanna Cloonan, the mother of Aiden Leos, took the stand Monday in the second-degree murder trial of confessed gunman Marcus Anthony Eriz, who has acknowledged firing the gunshot that killed Leos while riding in a car driven by his girlfriend in the midst of morning rush hour traffic on May 21, 2021.

    As a support dog sat at her feet in the Santa Ana courtroom, Cloonan described driving Aiden from their Costa Mesa home to Calvary Chapel Pre-School in Yorba Linda when the driver of a Volkswagen Gold SportWagen suddenly began “coming up quickly” behind her in the car pool lane of the northbound 55.

    “It scared me,” Cloonan said. “They swerved out of the carpool lane and in front of my car abruptly.”

    Speaking in a low voice and frequently pausing before responding to the prosecutor’s questions, Cloonan said that after cutting her off, the driver of the Volkswagen — later identified as Wynne Lee — flashed a “peace sign.”

    “I didn’t want to be near these people,” Cloonan testified. “I left the carpool lane. We were next to each other. I made a gesture. And I started to merge away from them.”

    Cloonan acknowledged that the “gesture” was her giving the middle finger to the driver of the Volkswagen. Cloonan said she briefly made eye contact with the man in the passenger’s seat of the Volkswagen — later identified by police as Eriz, Lee’s boyfriend — before she began merging her car into the lanes to her right.

    “He looked at me and smiled, after the gesture,” Cloonan said of Eriz. “I tried to get away as much as I could.”

    Moments later, Cloonan said, she heard a loud noise that she compared to “a big rock hit the car,” followed by Aiden exclaiming “Ow!” from his booster seat behind her.

    “I looked behind me and his head was hanging down,” Cloonan said.

    Pulling over to the side of the freeway, Cloonan said she struggled to talk to a 911 dispatcher, as the audio on her phone still was connected to her car speaker’s and she was holding onto Aiden. In 911 audio previously played in court, a hyperventilating Cloonan could be heard begging for help before repeatedly calling out “Aiden, Aiden, Aiden!”

    “I put my hand over his belly, held him up to my body to try to save his life,” Cloonan said.

    An off-duty law enforcement officer and later paramedics tried in vain to save Aiden. Investigators later determined that a bullet had ripped through the trunk of Cloonan’s car then traveled into Aiden’s back, through his liver and lung and piercing his heart before exiting his right abdomen.

    While the others were huddled around Aiden, Cloonan described the first time she realized her boy had been shot.

    “I looked at the back of my car and I saw a hole,” Cloonan said. “I asked a man ‘is that a bullet hole, is that what happened?’ and he said ‘It appears to be so.’”

    The mother denied ever posing a danger to Eriz or his girlfriend.

    “Did you at any point try to use your car as a weapon?” Senior Deputy District Attorney Dan Feldman asked.

    “No,” Cloonan replied.

    Eriz’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Randall Bethune, asked Cloonan only one question: whether she had previously told anyone about what she described happening when she allegedly caught eyes with Eriz.

    “Did you tell police you recalled the passenger in the car smiling?” The defense attorney asked.

    “I don’t recall,” the mother answered.

    That Eriz, now 26, fired the single gunshot that killed Aiden hasn’t been disputed during his trial.

    The prosecutor has argued that the shooting was a result of Eriz’s “callous and total disregard for human life,” while the defense attorney has countered that it was “a mistake, a rash decision by a young man.”

    In an interrogation by investigators after his arrest that was played in court earlier Monday, Eriz quickly admitted to his role in Aiden’s death.

    “We went in front of that lady, the lady came up to us and started acting hostile toward us,” Eriz told the police. “I don’t know why, I have no answer why, but I pulled out my Glock and pulled the trigger and it was gone.”

    The officers spent the bulk of the hour-long interview with Eriz trying to figure out the reason why he pulled the trigger. Eriz told the officers ” I didn’t even take a second to aim, I just pointed it out (the car window) and popped it off.”

    Eriz said he started carrying a gun with him during his commute “because people have been acting crazier on the freeway.” He also described struggling to explain himself when Lee got mad at him in the aftermath of the shooting.

    “I didn’t have an answer,” Eriz told the investigators. “Because I’m stupid? I don’t know. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t think about the consequences.”

    Eriz and Lee were arrested after a two-week manhunt. Eriz said he only learned he was responsible for the shooting a week after it occurred, and told the investigators he decided not to turn himself in because he didn’t believe Lee had done anything wrong and didn’t want her to get in trouble.

    “Do you regret doing it, or do you regret being caught,” an officer asked him at one point.

    “I regret doing it,” Eriz answered.

    “Would you have ever turned yourself in?” the officer asked.

    “I don’t know,” Eriz replied.

    Eriz told the officers where to find the Volkswagen, which he had left in a grandmother’s garage, and the semi-automatic handgun, which was in a locker at the car repair shop he worked at in Highland.

    Moments after the officers left the interrogation room, Eriz said softly, apparently to himself, “I’m sorry Wynne, I love you so much, I’m so sorry.”

    Closing arguments in Eriz’s trial are scheduled for Wednesday. Lee — who is facing lesser charges that include being an accessory after the fact — is expected to be tried separately at a later date.

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    ​ Orange County Register