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Child witnesses a second slaying

It could be the worst thing a child could witness: the shotgun death of a mother at the hands of a jealous boyfriend.

Lisa Lopez, 9, had barely begun to heal from the horror of that murder in July. The trial was behind her. She learned to accept her grandmother, Maria Quintanilla, as a mother.

Monday, it happened all over again.

After a night of bitter fighting, Quintanilla's jealous boyfriend, Juan Mendoza, chased the woman with a shotgun, and, on the same rural street, with the same little girl as witness, fired a fatal shot into Quintanilla's head, according to Hillsborough Sheriff's deputies.

Quintanilla, 42, died before Lisa's eyes, 250 feet from where Lisa's mother had died.

In a singsong child's voice, the Cypress Creek third-grader recited the details of the latest tragedy, which began after 9 p.m. Monday with screams inside the family's trailer.

At 10:20, Quintanilla bundled granddaughter Candy, 9 months old, in her arms and left the trailer. Lisa tagged along. Her brother, David, 8, skipped down the darkened street after them.

"It was cold and Candy was crying and crying," Lisa recalled. The accused killer caught up with them. "Some cars were coming," she said, so to avoid the gaze of oncoming drivers, he hugged Quintanilla and "puts the gun in the middle" between himself and Quintanilla "so no one could see it."

Tuesday afternoon, Lisa calmly swung the baby onto her lap and batted away a purple balloon. Matter-of-factly, she finished her story. She described how her grandmother crumbled on the pavement, the baby sliding off her lap, how her grandmother cried.

"Um, he kept saying, come to the house and I'll finish you off," Lisa recalled. "Then he shot her. I heard the bullet, and I saw her fall back." She tipped her head back to illustrate what she had seen.

Lisa said she grabbed her sister and ran. She can't remember where. David, also a witness to the death, also ran blindly in the night.

Sheriff's deputies were searching the Ruskin area Tuesday for Mendoza, 25, who was last seen carrying the 16-gauge shotgun. He is 5 feet 9, 158 pounds, with shoulder-length curly black hair, wearing a white mesh muscle shirt, jeans and brown leather sandals.

"What's the purpose? What did he gain?" asked relative Trina Bailey, 29, of Haines City.

"Tell me it's not true. They already took my sister. They can't take my momma too," said Quintanilla's daughter Angie Pineda, 27.

Lisa's mother, Maria Lopez, 23, a free-spirited woman, was killed during a family picnic in July by boyfriend Felipe Grifaldo, 25. He suspected her of cheating. Grifaldo was convicted last month of second-degree murder and is awaiting sentencing, according to court records.

Lopez died in the front seat of a truck as Lisa watched and Quintanilla gripped her arm.

After the murder, Quintanilla successfully gained custody of the three children. The children now are staying with relatives.

The first murder drew the family closer. Pineda, who said she plans to ask for custody of the children, moved to Florida from South Carolina to lend support after her sister died. The family, which sometimes had let months pass between visits, began meeting every weekend.

But Quintanilla was beginning her own abusive relationship with a young orange picker, relatives said. Mendoza moved in last September and began beating Quintanilla when they were alone, according to Pineda. Quintanilla asked for protection, but deputies were unable to help her, Pineda said.

On the afternoon before she died, Quintanilla told a daughter that Mendoza frightened her with his violent, jealous outbursts.

Said daughter Julia Lopez, 23: "She said, "I just want out of this life with him so I can go on.' "

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