The 6-foot-1-inch body of the baby-faced teen was found in a storm drain in the southwest valley.
He was riddled with bullets.
On the evening of April 28, 2008, it didn't take Las Vegas police long to figure out 17-year-old Joseph Lopez lay dead in a drain tunnel near the Las Vegas Beltway and Tropicana Avenue.
Today marks the four-year anniversary of Lopez's death. But police are no closer to identifying who was behind his vicious killing.
"This is almost like a mafia shooting," said the lead detective, who declined to give his name.
"They shot him and shot him. And then put one in his head just to make sure."
The detective in the case has nine years of experience with the Metropolitan Police Department's Homicide Section. He has worked more than 100 cases.
But Lopez's death, to which he was assigned in 2008, is the case that frustrates him the most because of all the unanswered questions. Why was the Spring Valley High School junior killed? Why was his body in the storm drain?
The teenager's body was found less than a mile from his home.
"This is the one I don't understand," the detective said earlier this week. "I want it solved. ... It's not just that someone was killed. Joey Lopez was assassinated. Whoever did this wanted him dead."
The pain caused by Lopez's violent death lingers for his adoptive parents, Elaine Lopez and Pamela Leonard.
Lopez, who now lives in Atco, N.J., said earlier this week the unanswered questions in her son's murder remain open wounds because she believes there are witnesses who have chosen not to go to police.
"To not have this solved at this point is excruciatingly painful," Lopez said. "We know there is somebody out there that knows something. That much we do know."
Leonard, who lives in Las Vegas, said, "It's been a long four years" since her son died after being shot five times.
Leonard and Lopez were a couple when their son was born in Atlantic City, N.J. They became his foster parents when he was 3 weeks old and adopted him when he was 3 years old. When the teen was slain, they were no longer a couple. They lived in separate parts of the valley but had raised their son together.
In school, the teen played violin in an advanced orchestra class. Elaine Lopez said she saw all of his performances. The week before he was killed, Joseph Lopez helped build and move stage sets for the Spring Valley production of "Bride of Frankenstein."
Leonard said because of his diverse upbringing, her son always looked at life through a positive prism.
She recalled one time in fifth grade when he came home startled because a classmate told him he was black. His adoptive parents are white.
Leonard laughed at the memory, proudly proclaiming her son was "colorblind."
"He was always the kid who looked for the good in people," she said.
The detective said that during the course of his investigation he didn't find one person with anything bad to say about the teen.
"Everybody loved Joey," he said.
Like many teens, the detective said Lopez was struggling to find an identity. Although at high school he was in the orchestra and teachers liked him, he also knew gang members.
The detective said Lopez was not in a gang, and authorities had no indication that he ever participated in any crimes.
"He wasn't beating anybody up. He wasn't shooting anybody. He was a wannabe more than anything," the detective said.
His mother said he had bravado.
"Joey definitely talked a lot," Leonard said. "That comes from new exposure and learning more about people outside of his regular world."
Elaine Lopez said her son had a lot of friends on MySpace. Some she didn't know.
Investigators believe Joseph Lopez might have been going to fight someone the day he was found in the storm drain tunnel. He was wearing Franklin sport gloves, which indicates that probably was the case, teens told police.
But even that much is uncertain.
The detective said that possible gang ties in the shooting were investigated. Nothing ever panned out.
The detective has been frustrated by the case from the onset. He said most of the people police interviewed were students at Spring Valley or Durango High School, the school Lopez had attended less than seven months before he died.
He said students were hesitant to talk to investigators, and some lied. Parents proved unhelpful.
Adults shied away from allowing their children to talk with investigators, the detective said.
"None of those kids are minors now, they'll have to stand on their own," he said. "Maybe their brains have matured, and they'll do the right thing."
Lopez was last seen alive about 4 p.m. the day he died. He was supposed to meet friends at a park.
The detective said that at 4:08 p.m., Lopez received a call on his cellphone from an unlisted number. Police never identified who called him. At 5:09 p.m., he texted a girl he was flirting with on the Internet whom he had never met. The girl returned his text a minute later, but Lopez never responded.
"Something was going on that caused him not to respond," the detective said.
At 6 p.m., a construction worker began removing barricades west of the Beltway. Less than 20 minutes later, he saw Lopez's body in the storm drain below and alerted police.
Police believe Lopez was killed between 5:09 and 6 p.m. The detective said if a shooting had occurred after 6 p.m., the construction worker would have heard the loud echo. The worker never heard anything.
The detective and Lopez's parents believe he was either lured into the storm drain or chased there. There was physical evidence that indicated that is where he was killed, the detective said.
During the autopsy, police and Lopez's family learned that he had a heart condition which caused his arteries to be clogged. The ailment caused him to struggle to walk long distances or run. Lopez was essentially defenseless in the ditch, the detective said.
He described the shooting as "treacherous" and "cold-blooded."
Elaine Lopez and Leonard hope someone will step forward and shed new light on their son's death. They have different perspectives on what punishment should be levied against the killer or killers.
Leonard said she just wants whoever is responsible to be in prison. Her son can't be brought back.
She has moved on from the "what ifs" that stemmed from her son's death. She has stopped wondering about what college he would have attended or what profession he would have chosen.
Leonard said her existence was shattered the day her child died.
"My life was turned upside down that night," she said. "It will never be the same or even remotely like it was four years ago."
Regardless, she said if her son's case is never solved, she will have peace because she believes the culprit or culprits will get their judgment from God.
Elaine Lopez isn't so lenient. She wants an eye for an eye and believes the perpetrator should receive the death penalty and nothing less.
"I don't think I'll ever rest in peace until I see someone in handcuffs," Lopez said. "For those who know about this, I hope they suffer the same pain that my son did. ... And someone has no mercy on them. Not even a judge or a jury."
Anyone with information about Joseph Lopez's death is urged to call the Metropolitan Police Department's Homicide Section at 828-3521, or Crime Stoppers at 385-5555.
Contact reporter Antonio Planas at aplanas@review journal.com or 702-383-4638.