It is rare in any homicide case that the victim's family walks away feeling that full justice has been done — simply because no sentence a court can impose will ever make up for the loss of their loved one's life.
But on Thursday morning, all members of the family of Alex Hopping, a Waukesha West High School graduate who died of a heroin overdose in April 2011 at her mother's home in Wauwatosa, said they were satisfied with the punishment handed down to the two men who supplied Hopping with the drugs that killed the 19-year-old.
"It was the best we could hope for, under the circumstances," said her stepfather, Jalem Getz.
Prosecution and convictions are often hard to come by in such cases, under what is known as the Len Bias law. In this case, the police and courts got two guilty pleas.
Daniel Lee Birtic of Waukesha, 24, in May pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree reckless homicide and on Thursday was sentenced by Milwaukee County Circuit Judge David Borowski to six years in prison and seven years of extended supervision.
Edwin Esteves of Milwaukee, 34, pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree reckless homicide and one count of being a felon in possession of a gun. Borowski sentenced him to 14 years in prison and eight years supervision on the homicide conviction and two years of prison and two of supervision on the weapon count.
Read Wawuatosa's Patch's three-part series on the life and death of Alex Hopping from November 2011.
Those sentences are to run consecutively, for a total of 16 years incarceration and 10 years of extended supervision, meaning Esteves will not be free of prison or the threat of prison until he is nearly 60.
Both Birtic and Esteves, Borowski ordered, must serve every day of their prison sentences, with no eligibility for early release or parole.
Middleman supplied friends to feed his own addiction
Even though the maximum sentence for a first-degree homicide charge is up to 40 years in prison, Borowski's impositions were stiff in both cases.
Birtic's defense lawyer asked for four years in prison for his client, while the prosecutor recommended five to six years. Borowski went with the maximum recommendation from the district attorney plus an even lengthier supervison.
Birtic was a longtime acquaintance of Hopping, who grew up in Waukesha, and he supplied heroin to her and other friends and associates there. Before his arrest in her death, he had no prior criminal record.
He was a "middler," who would collect money from suburban users and make daily trips to central Milwaukee to buy the dope from Esteves, taking a cut of the heroin as his payment to supply his own addiction.
The defense tried to paint Birtic as an unfortunate heroin user whose addiction blinded him to the consequences of his acts, and that four years would be enough time for him to "clean up" and rehabilitate himself.
Borowski would have none of that, saying that Birtic showed no remorse or awakening of conscience after Hopping died from shooting up the heroin he supplied her. Instead, he went right on using and making his daily buys from Esteves for six months without letup until he was arrested by Wauwatosa police.
"That is highly aggravating in this case," Borowski said.
Only when he was in custody and facing homicide charges did Birtic change his ways, mitigating his case somewhat by cooperating with police, confessing, and agreeing to testify against Esteves if need be, Borowski noted.
Also, by pleading guilty, Birtic spared Hopping's family the stress of a trial, Borowski said.
But in the end, Birtic had been selfish and reckless with many lives, resulting in tragedy for Hopping and her family, Borowski said before imposing sentence.
Of Birtic's sentence, Christa Lewis, Hopping's mother, said: "I'm satisfied. I think the supervision, the back end of it, is going to be the hardest for him, so I see it as a long sentence. He has to stay clean or he's looking at a lifetime of this."
The pusher, well-equipped with weapons
In Esteves case, there were very few mitigating circumstances and many more damning ones.
While it was Birtic who handed Hopping the bags of heroin that would kill her, and then left her alone with the powerful drug, Esteves was a high-volume heroin pusher providing many such small-time dealers with drugs.
On top of that, Esteves had a substantial prior criminal record, including gun charges and a 2002 felony conviction for keeping a drug house, although that was a marijuana dealing operation.
After having no contacts with the criminal justice system since 2003, Esteves turned to dealing heroin about three years ago and made it his livelihood.
When arrested in the Hopping case, Esteves had on his person and at his home about 20 grams of heroin — some 200 "hits" worth $4,000, the prosecution noted — plus four illegal guns, one of them a powerful .357 magnum.
Police also found a marijuana growing operation in his apartment — and four children, from 5 to 11 years old, left alone with all the guns and contraband.
Judge Borowski did not deliberate nearly as long over Esteves, calling him "a great danger to the community deserving of a long prison sentence," before imposing four more years than the prosecution and defense had agreed to.
Mark Hopping, Alex's father, said that he hoped the sentences would resound in the community not only as a warning against criminal behavior but to kids about using drugs.
"At the end of the day," Hopping said, "if the penalty is high enough, it can be a deterrent."
To come: Case reveals the twisted psychology of the drug culture, and the profound effects on those involved as family and friends.