BREAKING: Bradlee Shopping Center murderer sentenced to five years with Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice

(Updated at 8:30 p.m.) A 17-year-old former Alexandria City High School student was sentenced Thursday to five years with the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice for the 2022 murder of 18-year-old Luis Mejia Hernandez in the parking lot of the Bradlee Shopping Center, with one of those years already served.

Ryan Vega was 16 when he fatally stabbed Hernandez during a melee with dozens of ACHS students in the parking lot. In a two-day June bench trial, Judge James C. Clark found Vega guilty of second-degree murder and murder by mob, and said that Vega took advantage of his time behind bars at the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center by exhibiting good behavior and doing well with school.

“It appears to your credit, Mr. Vega, that you have taken advantage of your time,” Clark said before announcing the sentence. “In making this decision, I cannot ignore the harm of your actions. If I thought a life sentence would bring Luis back, I’d do it.”

Clark sentenced Vega to remain in the juvenile detention center until he is 21, in addition to 10 years suspended with the Virginia Department of Corrections and five years of supervised probation. He’s already been in jail for 17 months, putting the total sentence for the homicide at approximately five years behind bars by the time he is released.

He must also continue behavioral therapy and have no contact with the victim’s family.

Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney David Lord asked Clark for a 30-year sentence in an adult prison, with 10 years suspended. Lord said Vega was addicted to fentanyl at the time of the incident and was part of a disturbing trend of young people living on the edge.

“Part of justice involves answering that pain by the imposing of justice by this court,” Lord said in his closing argument.

Vega, who wore black sneakers, dark slacks and a gray sweater on top of a blue button-up shirt, kept his head down as he read a statement to the court. He said that the events of May 24, 2022 never stop running through his head and that he wishes he could turn back the clock.

“I am deeply and terribly sorry for the pain and loss I have caused your family,” Vega said, after being admitted to address the victim’s family. “Please know I will always pray for your family and Luis until my final breath.”

Vega said in another statement to the court that he spent sleepless nights staring at the ceiling of the juvenile detention center and that he was “remorseful beyond comprehension.” His attorneys Sebastian Norton and Sean Sherlock said that he wrote letters to Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson asking for more books in the detention center, and that he has distinguished himself as a leader behind bars.

Osmin Mejia Romero, the victim’s father, was upset by the sentence.

“This sentence is nothing,” Mejia Romero said. “It’s not a good situation. I wanted him in jail for 30 years, and I waited more than a year for this. His apology means nothing. He’s a liar.”

Mayor Wilson said he never saw a letter from Vega and that the Commonwealth’s requested sentence seemed appropriate.

“I did not review the evidence or sit through the trial, but based on my knowledge of the case, the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s requested sentence certainly seemed a lot more appropriate to me.”

The stabbing occurred during a brawl between two rival gangs of Alexandria City High School teenagers on Tuesday, May 24, 2022 — a week before graduation on a half-day while students took their Virginia Standards of Learning tests. The fight was over within one minute, and Mejia Hernandez was fatally stabbed in the heart. An autopsy showed that he also had abrasions to his neck, chin, the back of his hands, abdomen and knees, according to court records. The cause of death was a 7/8-inch stab wound to the chest.

Hernandez was given a posthumous diploma at graduation a week later.

Clark said that Vega was likely experiencing opioid withdrawal at the time of the incident.

“I just can’t help observe the defendant’s decision to start using drugs,” he said. “It likely was a significant factor in forming his judgment to be at Bradlee.”

The murder was one of several incidents that resulted in a number of new policies and security enhancements in and around Alexandria City High School, including a metal detector program, increased police patrols in the area, as well as a rule prohibiting kids from frequenting the shopping center during school hours.

Sherlock said that he is thankful for Clark’s “wise” decision.

“We are incredibly remorseful to the family of Luis Hernandez,” Sherlock said. “We’re very thankful for the wisdom of the court and Judge Clark in imposing this sentence, fully taking into account the seriousness of what happened on May 24, while balancing that appropriately with the goals of sentencing and the capabilities of rehabilitation for juveniles.”