A Riverside County jury sentenced a man to death Friday for the kidnapping and murder of a 17-year-old girl in Moreno Valley 10 years earlier.
The disappearance of Norma Lopez shook the city of Moreno Valley, leading to a long series of searches, and later, public memorials and vigils attended by hundreds of people. She went missing while walking to a friend’s home from summer school on July 15, 2010. Her body was found in a dirt field a few miles from her school five days later.
In October 2011, prosecutors filed criminal charges against Jesse Perez Torres of Long Beach after investigators linked him to the slaying through DNA evidence. His SUV was spotted near the crime scene.
The Riverside Press-Enterprise reported the DNA was recovered from an earring ripped out of Lopez’s ear, and it matched Torres’ DNA. However, due to the decomposition of her remains, investigators were not able to determine a cause of death, the Press-Enterprise reported.
The case dragged on for years as a result of challenges to evidence and changes in legal teams. On March 13, 2019, a jury convicted Torres of murder with the special allegation of committing the murder during the commission of a felony — kidnapping.
That made him eligible for the death penalty. A week later, the jury recommended death.
“I took Norma to school that day not knowing it was the last time I will ever see her again,” the victim’s mother wrote in a letter read by her sister during Torres’ sentencing hearing Friday.
“That’s the day this nightmare started,” her mother wrote. “In my house, there is no happiness like how it was when Norma was here… Everywhere in the house, there was laughter and happiness. It was beautiful. But that all ended the day that Norma did not return home to us.”
Several fundraisers and vigils were held in honor of the Moreno Valley teenager, attended by neighbors, friends, families and strangers in the weeks after her death. At Valley View High School, where she went to school, officials called in volunteers to monitor students on campus.
“It’s a small town. We love each other. She really didn’t deserve this,” one resident said, crying, during a vigil not long after Lopez’s disappearance.
The teenager’s family has described her as a talented artist and writer. In the days after her death, her family showed KTLA the many drawings and poems she collected inside her bedroom.
“I won’t forget her. She was my best friend,” her younger sister, Sonia, said through tears at the time. “She was always there for me. And I know she’s still going to be there.”