More than eight years after she was abducted and killed while walking to a friend’s house in Moreno Valley, the trial of 17-year-old Norma Angelica Lopez’s alleged killer is finally ready to start.
Jesse Perez Torres, 42, could face the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder and a special circumstance allegation of killing in the course of a kidnapping for the teenager’s July 2010 death.
Jury selection for Perez’s trial is scheduled to get underway before the end of next week at the Riverside Hall of Justice, with testimony likely to begin the first week of February.
Pretrial motions were heard Friday by Riverside County Superior Court Judge Bernard Schwartz, who has issued a litany of rulings ranging from witness sequestering to trial scheduling.
Testimony is expected to span a month, and if Torres is convicted, the case will move into the penalty phase, which could take another month.
The defendant is being held without bail at the Robert Presley Jail in Riverside, where he has been in custody since October 2011.
Challenges to evidence and changes in defense teams and prosecutors involved in the case have contributed to delays in bringing it to trial.
Norma was taken on the morning of July 15, 2010, after she had attended a summer class at Valley View High School. She was walking to a house in the 27300 block of Cottonwood Avenue to meet her younger sister, Sonia Lopez, her boyfriend and others but never made it there.
According to the prosecution, Norma had taken the route down Creekside Way, Quail Creek Drive and Mill Creek Road, then across an open field to Cottonwood multiple times — but always with her boyfriend, Joshua Battest.
The day of her disappearance, she was alone for the first time.
When Norma failed to arrive at the Cottonwood location by noon, Sonia and friends headed across the field, intending to go to the high school to look for the victim.
When they crossed the field, they discovered Norma’s school binder, purse and a broken earring strewn on the ground, leading to immediate concerns that she had been forcibly taken, at which point Sonia called 911.
Sheriff’s deputies initiated a search, but when no clues regarding Norma’s whereabouts turned up after two days, and the weekend began, members of the community and Norma’s schoolmates formed their own search parties, distributing fliers bearing her picture and description.
The missing person case drew national attention.
Authorities focused on what was described as a green SUV witnessed speeding away from the area about the same time Norma disappeared.
Five days later, only hours after the Moreno Valley City Council announced a $35,000 reward for information leading to her safe return, Norma’s remains were discovered in an olive tree grove at the edge of a residential property on sparsely populated Theodore Street in east Moreno Valley, roughly 2 1/2 miles from where she was snatched.
“Although parts of the body were in advanced decomposition, deputies were able to identify the decedent as Norma Lopez,” according to trial brief filed by Deputy District Attorney Kevin Beecham. “Deputies noted that her body was naked from the waist up and that she was shoeless. Norma did have on blue jeans and underwear.”
In the ensuing months, detectives followed up on more than 2,000 potential leads, questioning hundreds of people. The investigation stalled until September 2011, when physical evidence lifted from Norma’s earring produced a hit in the state’s Combined DNA Index System, better known as CODIS, where DNA samples of criminal offenders are archived.
Less than a month later, Torres was arrested and charged with Norma’s murder. His DNA had been collected earlier that year due to a domestic violence conviction.
At the time of the girl’s slaying, Torres resided on Creekside, and investigators theorize he may have been watching her on occasions when she left the campus to cross the field.
The defendant owned a green Nissan Xterra while in Moreno Valley. He left the city and sold the vehicle less than two weeks after Norma’s death, relocating to Long Beach, according to investigators.
Evidence presented during the defendant’s 2013 preliminary hearing showed that on the day of the abduction, Norma was captured on a home security surveillance camera walking along Quail Creek, and less than 30 seconds later, a green SUV is seen heading in the same direction. About five minutes after the vehicle’s first appearance, it goes racing by in the opposite direction, then abruptly reverses course and goes back the way it came.
Former Supervising Deputy District Attorney Mike Soccio told City News Service in 2015 that the DNA evidence is the linchpin, narrowing down the list of possible donors of the incriminating evidence to only two-dozen — with Torres being the strongest candidate.