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Jury seated for trial of man accused of kidnapping, killing Norma Lopez

A jury was seated today for the trial of a man accused of kidnapping and killing a 17-year-old Moreno Valley girl as she walked from her school to a friend’s house more than eight years ago.

Jesse Perez Torres, 42, could face the death penalty if convicted of first-degree murder, with a special circumstance allegation of killing in the course of a kidnapping, for the July 2010 death of Norma Angelica Lopez.

After nearly three weeks of jury selection, a panel was sworn in this morning by Riverside County Superior Court Judge Bernard Schwartz, who scheduled opening statements in the trial for Tuesday.

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, changes in defense teams and prosecutors involved in the case contributed to delays in bringing it to trial.

The victim was kidnapped 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 boyfriend, younger sister Sonia and others, but never made it.

According to the prosecution, the teen had regularly 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, her sister and friends headed into the field, intending to go to the Valley View campus to look for her.

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 her sister called 911.

Sheriff’s deputies initiated a search, but when no clues regarding the teen’s whereabouts turned up after two days, and the weekend began, members of the community and her schoolmates formed their own search parties, distributing flyers 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 the victim’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 the girl’s murder. His DNA had been collected earlier that year due to a domestic violence conviction, according to the prosecution.

At the time of the teen’s slaying, Torres resided on Creekside, and investigators theorized 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 the victim’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 in the world — with Torres being the strongest candidate.

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