A 17-year-old Moreno Valley girl abducted and killed after leaving a high school campus more than eight years ago died from homicidal violence, but the exact method that her killer used may never be known due to the condition of her body when it was found, a doctor testified Thursday.
“I listed the cause of death as undetermined,” Dr. Mark Fajardo, chief forensic pathologist for Riverside County, testified. “I could not find the reason why she passed away.”
Fajardo said that after a complete examination of Norma Angelica Lopez’s remains in July 2010, he was left to speculate as to what led to her demise. He said that, based on his experience handling over 300 autopsies in the last quarter century, he eventually formed an opinion that she was the victim of a homicide.
“There are a number of ways to kill someone without leaving a mark,” the witness told Deputy District Attorney Michael Kersse. “Strangulation or asphyxiation is possible.”
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 Norma’s death.
Fajardo was not questioned about potential evidence left behind by Norma’s killer, focusing instead on what he uncovered while scrutinizing her remains, which were in a degraded state after being left under a tree on Theodore Street, at the eastern edge of Moreno Valley, amid sweltering heat.
“The body was in a moderate to advanced state of decomposition,” the doctor said. “There were clumps of maggots and insects, and there was skin slippage.”
Pictures displayed by the prosecution showed the dead teenager head down, nude from the waist up, wearing blue jeans but no shoes. Maggot infestations were pervasive, making her unrecognizable. A dental records comparison was used to confirm the victim’s identity. She had been found in the early afternoon of July 20, 2010, by a man on a tractor, doing landscaping around his property.
According to Fajardo, much of the tissue around Norma’s neck and face had been eaten away by insects.
He testified that he found possible bruising on each of her hands, though he couldn’t be certain. However, he was able to confirm multiple bruises on her left shin, right and left thighs.
“Could these be finger pad impressions?” Kersse asked.
“It’s a possibility,” Fajardo replied.
During the internal half of the exam, he found evidence of significant bleeding in the left side of Norma’s chest, but the collection did not stem from a stab wound or bullet, he said.
“There was some type of blunt force impact to that area, but I don’t know what,” Fajardo said.
Kersse told jurors in his opening statement Tuesday that “DNA shows Jesse Torres kidnapped and killed Norma Lopez.”
The prosecutor said Torres could easily have observed Norma from his then-residence at 13173 Creekside Way leaving Valley View High School, where she was taking a morning biology class for the summer. Kersse theorized Torres watched the victim walk by multiple times in the three weeks before she was snatched.
Every day that she’d left the Valley View campus, she had been with her boyfriend. But on July 15, 2010, he was behind schedule, and Norma set off on her own. She headed south on Creekside, east to Quail Creek Drive, then south again on Mill Creek Road before crossing an open field toward Cottonwood Avenue, where her older sister, Sonia Lopez, and friends gathered almost daily that summer.
Kersse played a security surveillance videotape from a house looking down on Creekside, and the recording captured the last images of Norma alive, walking the route.
The tape also showed, moments later, a green SUV cruising slowly in the direction that Norma was walking, shortly after 10 a.m. The vehicle re-appears less than five minutes later, speeding away from the area. According to the prosecution, Torres owned a green Nissan Xterra at the time.
Norma’s school binder, purse and a broken earring were found about noon strewn on the ground in the field near Cottonwood. Five days later, her remains were discovered in the olive tree grove.
Kersse alleged that “touch” DNA samples were lifted from the earring fragments, Norma’s jeans, her panties and purse.
No matches were initially found in the state’s Combined DNA Index System, better known as CODIS. But Kersse said this changed by September 2011, when potential matches were identified out of the 1.8 million individuals with DNA in the database.
The prosecutor alleged that Torres was the best match, culminating in his detention by sheriff’s detectives, who found him at a Long Beach property owned by his mother. The defendant had been required to provide DNA samples after a domestic violence conviction in early 2011.
Defense attorney John Dorr repudiated the prosecution’s contention that the DNA presented a substantive link between his client and the crime.
“There were 24 potential DNA matches,” Dorr told the jury. “You will hear nothing about the other 23, who they are, or their criminal backgrounds.”
The attorney criticized the handling of the DNA collected from the earring, suggesting it had been contaminated by evidence technicians.
He also challenged the prosecution’s theory that Torres, who stands 5 feet 3 inches and weighs 109 pounds, could’ve manhandled Norma, who was 5 feet 5 inches and 107 pounds.
The defendant is being held without bail at the Robert Presley Jail in Riverside.