Matt Sopron spent 20 years in prison on a wrongful conviction for murder. He was freed after witnesses recanted and the charges were dropped. | Provided

Witnesses in 1995 double-murder recant testimony implicating Matt Sopron

SHARE Witnesses in 1995 double-murder recant testimony implicating Matt Sopron
SHARE Witnesses in 1995 double-murder recant testimony implicating Matt Sopron

Eric Anderson was a runty, 15-year-old kid when he opened fire on a van parked near Hale Park in the winter of 1995. Anderson, a cop’s son who stood just 5-feet-tall and weighed 101 pounds, said he was perpetually trying to impress everyone in his South Side neighborhood, particularly his fellow members of the Almighty Popes.

But, he said, he was not acting on orders from an older Popes member, Matt Sopron, when he shot up the van, killing 13-year-old passengers Carrie Hovel and Helena Martin. On Monday at a hearing on whether to grant Sopron a new trial, Anderson testified that he had stayed silent as Sopron was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for ordering the shooting, and remained quiet for decades as his own appeals played out. Sopron says he had no role in the crime.

“I spent 20 years, I spent a decade and a half in maximum security, growing up, maturing, really coming to grips with the decisions I made and the irreparable harm I had caused to the victims’ family, my co-defendants, people who were innocent,” Anderson said in front of Sopron, 45. The testimony played out in a courtroom at the Cook County’s Leighton Criminal Court building packed with nearly 50 supporters, most wearing “Free Matt” T-shirts.

“I try to be best that I can since then,” Anderson added.

Eric Anderson | Illinois Department of Corrections

Eric Anderson | Illinois Department of Corrections

Anderson, who was originally sentenced to life in the murder, said Monday that he barely knew Sopron, who was nine years older. The day of the shooting, Anderson said Sopron had been at a fellow Pope’s house when Anderson arrived trying to sell a pair of guns he’d stolen in a home burglary. A pair of other Popes —who also have since recanted — testified at Sopron’s trial that Sopron told them to “pull a roll” on members of the rival Ridgeway Lords who were invading their turf.

Billy Bigeck, a Popes member who had been with Anderson at Hale Park and who had been the first Pope to name Sopron as the one who ordered the shooting, testified Monday that he had been lying to reduce his own sentence.

On Monday, Bigeck said his own lawyer and a former prosecutor pressured him to implicate others in the shooting to get a lighter sentence for himself. After he gave a statement naming Sopron as a gang leader, Bigeck said, the prosecutor let him review case files and have drugs and alcohol during trial preparation meetings at the prosecutors’ office.

“As a kid facing the death penalty, not knowing and understanding what’s going on, what do you do in that situation? I don’t know,” said Bigeck, who was sentenced to 50 years for his role in the crime.

Billy Begeck | Illinois Department of Corrections

Billy Begeck | Illinois Department of Corrections

Assistant Prosecutor Carol Rogala noted that the first time anyone came forward saying Sopron had been the victim of lying witnesses was when Bigeck had a jailhouse lawyer draw up affidavits for Bigeck and his co-defendant, Ed Morfin, recanting their testimony, several years after the murder. But Bigeck admitted he tore up his affidavit, and tricked Morfin into signing a copy. Asked if he was lying again Tuesday to besmirch the prosecutor’s reputation, Bigeck said no.

“I wasn’t trying to punish anyone. I just wanted the truth out there,” he said. “I didn’t know how to go about it. I was just trying to do something for someone in this whole cluster—-.”

The hearing will resume Friday, with Morfin set to take the witness stand. As they walked out of the courthouse trailing dozens of supporters Monday, Sopron’s parents, Matt Sr. and Patricia Sopron, said it was moving to hear Anderson and Bigeck testify.

“I have spent 21 years waiting for this,” Patricia Sopron said. “None of the witnesses, not Anderson, no one, says Matt had anything to do with this.”

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