A Costa Mesa man who admitted to firing the gunshot that killed a 6-year-old riding in the back seat of his mom’s car in freeway rush-hour traffic was convicted Thursday, Jan. 25, of second-degree murder.
Nearly two and a half years after Orange County was gripped by the road-rage killing of Aiden Leos and the massive two-week manhunt for the boy’s killer, a jury deliberated for about two hours before finding Marcus Anthony Eriz guilty of both murder and shooting at an occupied motor vehicle.
Eriz, 26, now faces up to 40 years to life behind bars. He showed no visible reaction as the verdict was read in Orange County Superior Court, instead staring straight ahead.
That Eriz fired the fatal gunshot was never in doubt during his trial. Jurors were instead tasked with deciding whether he was guilty of murder or a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.
District Attorney Todd Spitzer, during a news conference next to a photo of Aiden following the verdict, described the boy’s mother “literally holding her son whose heart was bleeding on the side of the freeway … because of the reckless and just cold-hearted behavior of an individual who decided he would carry a gun and when the right time presented itself he would use that gun to take a human life or at least scare somebody.”
Eriz, a passenger in a car driven by his girlfriend, Wynne Lee, and Aiden’s mother, Joanna Cloonan, were both heading northbound on the busy 55 Freeway in Orange. Eriz and Lee had left their Costa Mesa apartment for the Highland auto-repair shop they worked at; the mother was taking her son from their Costa Mesa home to Calvary Chapel Pre-School in Yorba Linda.
Lee, driving a Volkswagen Golf Sportwagen, sped up behind Cloonan’s Chevrolet Sonic in the carpool lane, abruptly moved around the Sonic and then moved back into the lane in front of the mother, cutting her off and brake-checking her. Lee then flashed a peace sign that the mother took as less than genuine.
Scared and then angered, Cloonan got out of the carpool lane, pulled up next to the Volkswagen and gave in the direction of Lee and Eriz the middle finger. The mother testified that she briefly made eye contact with Eriz, long enough to see him smile, before merging away from the Volkswagen to prepare to leave the freeway.
The mother heard a loud noise she compared to a big rock hitting her car. Aiden, in a booster seat behind here, exclaimed “Ow!”
The mother looked back, saw Aiden with his head hanging down and pulled over to the side of the freeway.
A single gunshot had ripped through the trunk of Cloonan’s car before entering Aiden’s back, traveling through his liver and lung, piercing his heart and exiting his right abdomen.
The mother screamed: “Aiden! Aiden! Aiden!”
She struggled to tell a 911 operator what had happened.
An off-duty Seal Beach police officer pulled over to perform CPR on the boy. But he died within the hour.
A man driving behind the Volkswagen and Cloonan’s Chevrolet witnessed the confrontation and the shooting. He was able to provide investigators with a blurry photo that generally depicted the Volkswagen, but not in enough detail for the license plate to be legible.
A massive manhunt, headed by the California Highway Patrol, stretched over more than two weeks.
Two dozen banners reading “Who shot Aiden?” were draped over overpasses in Orange County and in the Inland Empire. Law enforcement officers spent countless hours going to every business with security cameras along the 55 Freeway. They got more photos, providing better views of the car. A reward to find those responsible for Aiden’s death swelled to $500,000.
Based on the trim and tires of the vehicle, investigators identified several dozen specific cars, apparently by dipping into the Department of Motor Vehicles’ database, including the Volkswagen driven by Lee and owned by her parents. And a tipster said that Lee and Eriz had been driving a vehicle matching the general description authorities had put out, and added that the couple had begun going to work in Eriz’s red pickup truck.
Law enforcement officials were waiting for the couple when they pulled up to their Costa Mesa apartment complex on June 6, 2021. Minutes into his interrogation, Eriz told investigators that Cloonan had “started acting hostile toward us,” and he responded by shooting at her vehicle.
There was no evidence presented in the case that Eriz knew the boy was in the car, or that he intended to kill the mother.
Eriz told police he had started carrying a gun, “because people have been acting crazier on the freeway.” Eriz said that after being flipped off he pulled his semi-automatic handgun from a pouch behind Lee’s driver’s seat, racked a round, rolled down his passenger window and “popped it off” without aiming.
“I don’t know why, I have no answer why, but I pulled out my Glock and pulled the trigger, and it was gone,” he told police.
Eriz said he was unaware of Aiden’s death, or the news reports of the manhunt, until his coworker told him six days after the shooting that police were searching for a car that looked like the one he and Lee drove in. He directed police to where he had hidden the Volkswagen — in a garage at a relative’s home in Whittier — and to the locker at work where he left the gun.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Dan Feldman told jurors during his closing arguments Wednesday that Eriz felt disrespected by Aiden’s mother. Eriz had been “carrying the Glock around for months, waiting for someone to get out of line,” the prosecutor said.
“In the most cowardly fashion he fired a round to teach her a lesson,” Feldman told jurors. “Because he had enough of people getting hostile, and it was up to him to show this woman not to disrespect him. …
“Mr. Eriz turned this little boy into a question that would haunt the citizens of Orange County for 16 days,” the prosecutor added, alluding to the “Who Shot Aiden?” banners.
Eriz’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Randall Bethune, argued that Cloonan provoked Eriz, causing him to act rashly in the heat of passion. As a result, the defense attorney argued, Eriz was guilty not of murder but to a lesser count of voluntary manslaughter.
“We’ve all been on the road when we’ve been cut off, we’ve all been on the receiving end of a finger or maybe we gave one back,” Bethune told jurors. “None of that is deliberative. That is acting rashly. And we’ve all seen it or we have all done it. …
“Mr. Eriz acted rashly that day, he made a split-second decision,” the defense attorney added. “Mr. Eriz is not a murderer.”
Lee, who is also 26 and faces lesser charges of being an accessory after the fact, will be tried separately. Her jury trial had not yet been scheduled.