Calif. Teen Was Abducted, Killed by ‘Predator’ on Way to Friend's House
Norma Lopez, 17, was walking to a friend's house after summer school when abducted
On Wednesday, a California man was found guilty in the “random” killing of a Moreno Valley teenager he abducted as she was walking to a friend’s house from summer school, PEOPLE confirms.
A jury found Jesse Perez Torres, 42, guilty of kidnapping 17-year-old Norma Angelica Lopez, whose decomposing body was found in a farmer’s field in July 2010. The penalty phase of Torres’ trial begins Thursday afternoon.
“This was really everyone’s worst nightmare,” Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco tells PEOPLE. “She could have been anyone’s daughter. It could have been your daughter.”
When the guilty verdict was read, Bianco says Torres casually took a drink of water. “There was no reaction from him,” he says.
Torres’s attorney John Dorr says his client was devastated by the verdict.
“Obviously he wanted it to go the other way, so he is sad and frustrated,” he tells PEOPLE. “It wasn’t the verdict we wanted.”
Authorities believe that Torres abducted Lopez on July 15 as she was walking to meet friends in Moreno Valley. The teen had been taking a summer school course at Valley View High School. “She was doing really well in school, to the point where she was taking extra classes,” says Bianco.
Bianco says Lopez usually walked from school with her sister or boyfriend, but she happened to walk alone on this particular day.
Torres lived in the neighborhood and was a “complete stranger” to Lopez.
On Monday, during final arguments, Riverside County deputy district attorney Michael Kersee told jurors that Torres, whose wife had allegedly left him, “was looking out the window at the teenage girls kissing their boyfriends on the corner,” he said, according to the Press-Enterprise. “(And) each and every day he was watching, he was waiting, he was looking through the blinds, he was lusting.”
Authorities believe Torres used his car to abduct Lopez and dump her body in a field three miles away. She was found by a farmer five days later. “She was in a grove of trees and he just happened to see her,” says Bianco. According to NBC4, she was nude from the waist up.
Bianco says the abduction and murder rattled the close-knit Moreno Valley community.
“The entire city was on edge because a random high school girl was randomly snatched from us,” he says. “We had no answers for them and everyone was afraid for their kids. It was a very trying time for the city, knowing there was someone out there that was capable of doing that to a child and we didn’t know who they were.”
• Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.
What made it even more difficult, he says, was that investigators had very little to go on.
“This was a completely random, middle-of-the-day, no-witnesses act,” he says.
Bianco says investigators finally caught a break in 2011 — 15 months after the teen’s death — when Torres was linked to the case through DNA evidence. “His DNA was put in the system on an unrelated charge that he was arrested for … and it came up with a hit.”
Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Kevin Beecham, who co-prosecuted the case, told jurors that DNA was “the most important evidence in this case,” NBC reports. “He left his DNA all over her … pants, purse, earring. It all points to the same person.”
Dorr argued that the prosecution overlooked other DNA matches in the case and suggested that the evidence could have been contaminated.
“We showed with our forensic expert that this evidence was handled inappropriately,” he said, according to NBC.
Dorr tells PEOPLE that he believes that Lopez most likely was abducted by two people. “I just don’t see how it would be possible for him to have done this by himself.”