MORENO VALLEY: DNA linked suspect in Norma Lopez slaying

  /THE PRESS ENTERPRISE
Jesse Perez Torres man his first court appearance on charges that he kidnapped and murdered a Moreno Valley 17-year-old

A man charged with kidnapping and killing a Moreno Valley girl was linked to her slaying through DNA evidence, prosecutors said Thursday.

District attorney officials said they got a DNA match about three weeks ago that matched Jesse Perez Torres, 35, to DNA found at the crime scene where the body of Norma Lopez, 17, was found.

Moreno Valley police arrested Perez Torres at his Long Beach apartment Oct. 20 on suspicion of murder and kidnapping for rape.

He is charged with one count of murder and a special circumstance of kidnapping. No sex crime charges were filed. If convicted, he could face the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

Norma’s family has said they do not want to seek the death penalty.

Perez Torres was scheduled to enter a plea Thursday, but his arraignment was postponed to Nov. 16.

Norma was abducted July 15, 2010 while she was walking home from summer school classes at Valley View High School in Moreno Valley. Police believe she took a shortcut through a field off Dracaea Avenue to meet her sister at a friend’s house a block away.

Norma’s family reported her missing about two hours after she left the school. Police found signs of a struggle and Norma’s belongings in a field. There were no witnesses to the abduction, though a green SUV was seen speeding away from the area. From the beginning, detectives believed she had been abducted by a stranger.

Her body was found five days later in a field two miles away by a man mowing weeds off Theodore Street. She was found topless, wearing jeans, with her hair pulled up above her neck. The man who found her reported no visible injuries. Authorities have not released the cause of death.

Perez Torres had been arrested and charged with felony spousal abuse and assault in April 2010, but the charges were dropped.

Authorities initially said he was not required to give a DNA sample when he was arrested in that case.

But Thursday, officials acknowledged that he had provided a DNA sample to Moreno Valley police after his arrest, and the sample had been cataloged with the Department of Justice.

DNA found at the crime scene was entered into a state database of prior and incoming felony convicts.

About three weeks ago, detectives got a match, said Chief Deputy District Attorney Mike Soccio. Following the hit, detectives narrowed down leads and other evidence that pointed to Perez Torres.

He had lived across the street from Valley View High School and adjacent to the field where police believe she was abducted. He also drove a green Nissan Pathfinder.

Authorities believe he lived at the home through August 2010.

Perez Torres made his first court appearance in a packed Riverside courtroom Thursday. His arms and legs were shackled and he wore a red jail uniform, indicating he was in protective custody or a high risk inmate.

He stood about 5-foot-5, according to jail records. He was surrounded by eight deputies and sat next to his attorneys during court proceedings.

His only statement was a quiet, “Yes” as he answered a judge’s questions.

The Lopez family sat in the courtroom. They clasped hands and wore pins with Norma’s photo.

“We’re prepared for anything,” Norma’s sister Sonia said. “We just hope the case ends soon.”

The teen’s death galvanized the community and prompted authorities to call for vigilance and to warn parents to not let their children walk alone.

Prosecutors said police interviewed more than a thousand people in the hunt for Norma’s killer. Detectives set up checkpoints outside the school and went door-to-door looking for witnesses. Nearly every registered sex offender in the city was contacted, but all were ruled out as suspects.

The case remained unsolved for 15 months. Police initially raided the home of a former teacher’s aide at Norma’s school, but he was not linked to the case.

As the one year anniversary approached in July, the Moreno Valley police chief told a crowd that most leads were dead ends and pleaded for tips to solve the case. No DNA matches were found at the time.

Perez Torres was appointed two high-profile public defenders, O.G. Magno and Gail O’Rane. O’Rane previously represented serial killer Joseph Edward Duncan. Magno is also representing the man accused of killing a Riverside police officer.

Perez Torres is being held at the Robert Presley Detention Center in Riverside, with bail set at $1 million.

“We took additional time because this is such an important case to the community,” Soccio said. “DNA helps our case. but a case as complex as this requires a lot of work, just like any capital case does.”