Stephanie Herrera was the first in her family to attend college.
The teenager was a role model to her two younger siblings and dreamed of becoming a surgeon because she wanted to help non-English speaking patients like her mother have an easier time navigating the health care system.
But before starting her sophomore year, the 18-year-old University of Illinois at Chicago student was killed by a purported Latin King who intentionally slammed into the SUV she was traveling in because he mistakenly thought there were rival gang members inside.
On Thursday, a Cook County jury found Shalimar Santiago guilty of murder in Herrera’s death. Santiago, 30, also was convicted of several counts of aggravated battery for injuring seven of Herrera’s friends who also were seated in the Lincoln Navigator in the early morning hours of Aug. 1, 2009.
“I’m sad but I’m at peace,” Herrera’s mother Elena said in Spanish after the verdicts.
Santiago showed no emotion but mouthed something to his weeping girlfriend, Josie Soto, as he was led away by Cook County sheriff’s officers.
Soto was by Santiago’s side when he plowed her speeding purple van into the SUV full of young men and women who were trying to find their way back to their suburban homes after a night of clubbing, prosecutors said.
A few hours before the West Side wreck, a fellow gang member of Santiago’s was wounded in a shooting he believed was carried out by the Latin Dragons.
When Santiago, who is known as “Capone,” saw the black SUV, he was sure it was the culprits.
But the only ones inside the vehicle were lost motorists, according to assistant state’s attorneys Mark Shlifka and Raymond Brogan.
Santiago’s lawyer Crystal Carbellos argued that the incident in the 3600 block of West Augusta was simply an accident – not a murder.
She dismissed the testimony of a victim who said he saw Santiago flash gang signs and said the accounts of a few others who were injured were suspect because they were intoxicated.
But Shlifka said Santiago knew exactly what he was doing when he got behind the wheel and wielded his “attack” vehicle at a high rate of speed, killing Herrera, a Melrose Park native.
“This was no accident,” Shlifka said.
“It was an act of revenge, retaliation and gang nonsense. He [Santiago] was the hunter, and his prey was the Lincoln Navigator.”