April 11, 2024
New York, NY

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Jobsite Killer of Woman Carpenter Apprentice Gets 15-Years-to-Life Sentence

Hundreds of tradeswomen signed a poster of murdered apprentice Outi Hicks, created by her peers, to show solidarity and push the fight against bullying and harassment and for intervention on jobsites. Image: Latisa Kindred, Chicago Women in the Trades, IBEW Local 134; Arlena Williams, Pipefitters' Local 597; and Chicago union carpenter Ebba Schmit

The charged killer of a 32-year-old union carpenter apprentice and single mother of three at a Fresno, Calif. construction site whose 2017 bludgeoning sparked fear and outrage among industry tradeswomen and triggered a national movement to stop jobsite bullying, has been sentenced in a state superior court to 15 years to life in prison.

Aaron Lopez, a former part-time nonunion worker for a scaffold erection firm at a biomass plant project with Outi Hicks who repeatedly struck her with a heavy object, pleaded no contest to second-degree murder, according to Fresno County court records.

The plea came in an agreement with prosecutors after he had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to a first-degree murder charge in 2018.

Lopez waived an arraignment and was denied probation, the records showed

Gerald Schwab, attorney for Lopez, said at the Feb. 11 sentencing that the defendant had been treated for schizophrenia, PTSD and other mental health disorders and that it would have been difficult for prosecutors to prove premeditation in a case where Lopez killed Hicks for no apparent reason, according to a local TV news report.

Schwab did not respond to an ENR query on the plea switch and sentence.

Lopez had been harassing Hicks for days before the murder, but she did not report the abuse to her union, Local 701 of the Carpenters' union,  or tell colleagues, according to what some union members had told ENR.

Event Spurred Intervention Push

Lopez expressed remorse during his sentencing and took responsibility for his actions, said Kayla Franklin, a 23-year union carpenter and Local 701 member who was in the courtroom. "He said the words," she said. Lopez will serve his sentence at the Wasco State Prison in Kern County, Calif.

Hicks' murder triggered shock among construction tradeswomen although many had often faced jobsite harassment, which was not always reported, they said in social media posts.

All were "shaken to their absolute core the day that happened,”  said Vicki L. O’Leary, a 30-plus-year union ironworker veteran who now is the international union’s general organizer for diversity and a high profile advocate for women in the North American Building Trades Unions.

The murder boosted local and national efforts by women and others in industry to stop jobsite harassment and promote stronger site worker intervention, which includes the Be That One Guy program launched nationally by the ironworkers' union, for which O'Leary was recognized in 2019 with ENR's Award of Excellence.

"Outi is the reason this was and is being confronted. My heart feels a little heavy thinking about her loss of life in such a horrific way and how it is helping to change the industry," says O'Leary, who adds she has presented details about the union's intervention program recently to contractor and owner management groups, and at the American Bar Association's Construction Law forum.

But O'Leary said there should be "no forgiveness for [Lopez's] behavior. Was he remorseful blow after blow after blow?"

California Rules

California toughened anti-discrimination and anti-harassment rules for construction apprenticeship program participants, including instructors and contractors, in a bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018 that took effect in June 2019. It requires harassment prevention training, and set policies and procedures for handling and resolving complaints and corrective actions.

As of Jan. 1, the law's mandates now apply to all employers in California with five or more employees.

"This incident is a dark example of the gender-based violence experienced by women working in the construction industry," says Melina Harris, a Seattle union carpenter and head of tradeswomen advocacy group Sisters in the Building Trades, which, together with the carpenters' union, raised funds for Hicks' funeral expenses and family support.

"Hicks’ murder should prompt us to engage in serious discussions ...  about how any future acts of violence can be prevented," she says.

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