The sisters of a Moreno Valley teenager abducted and killed nearly nine years ago by a 42-year-old welder now facing a potential death sentence recalled her Monday as a loving, happy youth whose loss impacted them deeply.
“We were not twins but almost as close,” Sonia Lopez, now 24, said of her sister, Norma Angelica Lopez. “She was friendly, caring — always a happy person. She liked to make people smile.”
Sonia Lopez was the first to find her 17-year-old sibling’s possessions scattered in a field along Cottonwood Avenue in the early afternoon of July 15, 2010. She remembered immediately feeling Norma “was in danger.”
“I screamed and yelled,” the witness testified tearfully. “I was terrified. I wanted her to respond back.”
When Norma’s remains were discovered five days later, she said she became “scared to leave the house. It took me a really long time to be by myself. I wanted my parents near me at all times. I was almost like a baby.”
The eldest of the Lopez siblings, Elizabeth, now 26, said her family suffered a collective “broken heart” when Norma was killed.
“I tried to be optimistic when she disappeared,” she said. “We thought maybe somebody wanted money for her and they would return her to us. I didn’t want to believe what happened.”
Elizabeth Lopez said the repercussions of her younger sister’s death last to this day.
“Most all of us have anxiety,” she said tearfully. “This trial has brought feelings back we haven’t confronted in a while. There is always something missing in our life. It’s Norma.”
Following the women’s testimony, the prosecution rested in the penalty trial of Jesse Perez Torres, who was convicted last week of first-degree murder, with jurors finding true a special circumstance allegation of killing in the course of a kidnapping.
The defense is slated to call members of Torres’ family and one of his high school teachers to testify Tuesday at the Riverside Hall of Justice.
Deputy District Attorney Kevin Beecham last week asked the five-woman, seven-man jury to recommend a death sentence for the defendant.
“Consider the horrific circumstances of the crimes this man has committed,” Beecham said. “I ask you to give the full extent of justice.”
Torres’ attorney, Darryl Exum, argued his client should receive life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“He is intellectually disabled. For lack of a better term, he’s not `normal,”’ the attorney said last week.
The evidentiary portion of Torres’ monthlong trial concluded last week, during which Beecham reminded the jury that the defendant had “left his DNA all over (Norma’s) pants, purse, earring.”
No DNA matches were initially found in the state’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, in the months immediately following the teen’s slaying. But according to the prosecution, that changed by September 2011, when potential matches were identified out of the 1.8 million individuals whose biological identities were then in the database.
The defendant had been required to provide DNA samples after a domestic violence incident in early 2011. According to Beecham, testing on the DNA strands collected from Norma’s garments and possessions, both at the scene of her abduction and where her body was placed, revealed that the chance of an errant forensic profile was 1 in 5.87 million.
“It’s Mr. Torres’ DNA,” Beecham said.
The county’s chief pathologist, Dr. Mark Fajardo, testified that he could only speculate as to exactly how Norma was killed, suggesting that “strangulation or asphyxiation” was possible.
Fajardo said that the girl’s remains were in a degraded state after being left in an olive tree grove on Theodore Street, at the eastern edge of Moreno Valley, amid sweltering heat. She was found by a landscaper in the early afternoon of July 20, 2010.
Beecham said Torres could easily have observed Norma from his then-residence at 13173 Creekside Way, watching her whenever she left Valley View High School, where she was taking a morning biology class for the summer.
Every day that she’d left the campus for several weeks, she had been with her boyfriend. But on July 15, 2010, he was behind schedule, and she set off on her own, heading across a field “where no one could hear her scream,” Beecham said.
Torres tailed her in his green Nissan Xterra, driving into the field, where he overpowered the girl, who “tried to fight back” but was subdued, sealing her fate, the prosecutor said.