RIVERSIDE (CBSLA) – A 42-year-old man was convicted Wednesday of first-degree murder for kidnapping and killing a 17-year-old Moreno Valley girl more than eight years ago.
A Riverside jury deliberated two days before finding Jesse Perez Torres guilty of the 2010 death of Norma Angelica Lopez. Along with the murder count, jurors found true a special circumstance allegation of killing in the course of a kidnapping.
The victim’s family members, including her mother and one of her sisters, sobbed on hearing the jury’s findings.
The panel must now decide whether to recommend the death penalty or life in prison without the possibility of parole for Torres. This comes after California Gov. Gavin Newsom Tuesday announced he is halting executions for the hundreds of inmates on death row.
Riverside County Superior Court Judge Bernard Schwartz scheduled penalty trial proceedings to begin Thursday afternoon.
On the morning on July 15, 2010, Norma Lopez was walking to her home, located in the 27300 block of Cottonwood Ave., after attending a summer class at Valley View High School. Lopez was supposed to meet her younger sister and friends at the residence, however, she never made it home.
Five days later, Lopez’s remains were found in an olive tree grove on Theodore Street, at the eastern edge of Moreno Valley by a man on a tractor doing landscaping.
“Originally, I felt like I failed the family by not finding her,” Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco told CBS2 Wednesday after the verdict was read. Bianco was the lead detective on the case at the time.
“For a week, I didn’t go home. I slept in my office, if I slept,” Bianco said regarding the five days before her body was found.
In September of 2011, physical evidence that was lifted from Lopez’s earring produced a hit to Torres in the state’s DNA index system of criminal offenders, CODIS.
“This is very emotional for me, it’s a long time coming,” Bianco added.
During his closing argument in the month-long guilt phase of the trial, Deputy District Attorney Kevin Beecham told jurors, “The DNA is the most important evidence in this case.”
At the time of the slaying, Torres lived around the corner from the high school where Lopez attended. Detectives said he is believed to have been watching her on several occasions as she walked home or to friends’ houses from school.
During the trial, prosecutors said Torres could easily have observed Lopez from his then-residence at 13173 Creekside Way.
A security surveillance videotape from a house looking down on Creekside captured the last images of Lopez alive. The tape also showed, moments later, a green SUV cruising slowly in the direction that she was walking. The vehicle re-appeared less than five minutes later, speeding away from the area. According to the prosecution, Torres owned a green Nissan Xterra at the time.
He reportedly sold the car and relocated to Long Beach less than two months after Lopez’s death.
(© Copyright 2019 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. City News Service contributed to this report.)