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10:55am — Murder Verdict, 5 Years Later

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Socorro jury finds man guilty of rape-strangulation.

Ramon Lopez, 31, was found guilty by a state District Court jury last week of felony murder, kidnapping, rape, auto theft and evidence-tampering in the April 2001 death of 24-year-old Crystal Lee Houston Calderella, El Defensor Chieftain of Socorro reported on its Web site.

Jurors deliberated about four hours Wednesday before returning guilty verdicts on all counts against Lopez, El Defensor Chieftain reported. Lopez was to be sent to Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Los Lunas for a 60-day diagnostic evaluation before sentencing, according to the paper.

During the trial, there was competing testimony by medical examiners, and the defense claimed that the evidence against Lopez was entirely circumstantial, El Defensor Chieftain reported last week.

The only witness for the defense was medical investigator Jeffery Nine, who testified that he believed the original autopsy — done by another pathologist for the state — was correct when it said the cause of death could not be determined.

Calderella’s partially decomposed body was found in her mobile home in Socorro on April 15, 2001, after she had been missing several days, El Defensor Chieftain reported earlier.

She was found on the floor lying on her back with her sweatshirt pulled up over her face and her sweatpants and underwear pulled down around her thighs, the paper has reported. She had been severely beaten and there were heavy marks on her neck, according to police reports cited in El Defensor Chieftain.

Another state medical examiner, Kurt Nolte, testified for the prosecution last week that he believed, based on his own findings, that Calderella died of manual strangulation, El Defensor Chieftain reported.

And while Nine testified that Calderella could have died of a cocaine overdose, Nolte told jurors it was unlikely — given the position of her body and her state of undress — that a drug overdose killed her.

Lopez was arrested by Albuquerque police several weeks after Calderella’s death in April 2001 as a suspect in a shoplifting incident at a Target store, and was picked up for Calderella’s murder when a Socorro police detective recognized Lopez’s face from a television newscast on the shoplifting incident.

Calderella’s car was found in Albuquerque on April 22, 2001, the paper reported.

"All the evidence points to Ramon Lopez," special prosecutor Rey Montano told jurors in closing last week. "There was one person on the run that day and that person was Ramon Lopez."

Calderella’s father, Bill Houston, told the Socorro paper after the verdict that "nobody won" but that justice was served.

Houston is no stranger to family tragedy.

According to a 2003 story in the Albuquerque Journal, Calderella’s older sister, 28-year-old Stephanie Houston, a Socorro convenience store manager, was run over on a dark stretch of road north of Belen on Feb. 27, 2000, a little more than a year before her sister’s death.

Although police concluded that Stephanie Houston’s death was accidental and two district attorneys have looked into the case and found there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute, Bill Houston has continued to push for more investigation in the case, claiming the death was not an accident, the Journal reported.

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