The man accused of kidnapping and killing a 17-year-old girl in Moreno Valley was found guilty of murder Wednesday, nearly a decade after the crime shook the small Riverside County community.
It took more than a year for authorities to arrest Jesse Perez Torres after he abducted Norma Lopez as she walked from summer school to a friend's home on July 15, 2010. Five days after she disappeared, her decomposed body was found in a dirt field just two miles from her high school.
Torres, 42, was taken into custody on Oct. 21, 2010 and charged days later. The Long Beach resident was tracked down by law enforcement after a match was made between evidence from the crime scene and his DNA, which was retrieved five months earlier when he was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence.
Prosecutors said he could face the death penalty since he was also found guilty of the special allegation of committing the murder during the commission of a felony, kidnapping. The penalty phase for his trial is scheduled for March 14.
However, his fate would remain unclear even if convicted of the death penalty as Gov. Gavin Newsom placed a moratorium on all executions in the state Wednesday and may commute death sentences.
The murder put local families and officials at Valley View High School on high alert as volunteers were called in to monitor students at the campus and several fundraisers and memorials were held in Lopez's honor.
In the days after the killing, the slain teen's siblings told KTLA Lopez was an avid artist and writer who loved to paint and draw, showing drawings and poems inside her bedroom — left in the same condition as the morning she left and never came home.
"I won’t forget her. She was my best friend," her younger sister, Sonia, said through tears. "She was always there for me. And I know she’s still going to be there."
Meanwhile, her mother pleaded for the killer to have mercy and come forward.
Local residents fearful of another gruesome attack kept vigilant as the search for the assailant continued. Hundreds of neighbors walked to the dirt field where Lopez's body was dumped for a ceremony in her memory and a gathering at St. Christopher Parish drew crowds of supporters wearing red roses in her honor.
"It’s a small town. We love each other. She really didn't deserve this," one resident said, crying.
When Torres was arrested in October 2011, more than a year later, Lopez's older sister expressed relief.
"It was actually like a sense of, like, calmness — knowing that he’s finally behind bars," her sister, Elizabeth, said.
Torres' trial was delayed for years due to challenges to evidence and changes to the prosecution and defense teams, according to the Press-Enterprise.