Police: Decomposed body is California teen who went missing during walk home

By Gillian Flaccus, AP
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Police: Decomposed body is missing Calif. teen

MORENO VALLEY, Calif. — Authorities identified a decomposed body Wednesday as that of a 17-year-old girl who was likely kidnapped while walking home from school last week in Southern California.

An autopsy confirmed the identity of Norma Lopez, but investigators would not release a cause of death.

“I don’t want to believe it’s her,” family friend Melanie Villarreal, 18, told The Associated Press. “We know she’s in a better place.”

Lopez vanished July 15 on her way home from a summer school class at Valley View High School in Moreno Valley, about 60 miles east of Los Angeles.

Two other teenage girls were found slain this year after being abducted in Southern California.

John Albert Gardner, 31, a registered sex offender, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for killing 17-year-old Chelsea King and 14-year-old Amber Dubois.

King vanished while running at a San Diego park in February, and Dubois was kidnapped while walking to school last year. Gardner led authorities to the remains of Dubois after his arrest in the King case.

Police and the FBI have not identified a suspect in the Lopez case and have asked the public for help in the investigation.

“We do have a few leads that we’re still following up … but I wouldn’t say that we’re any closer,” Riverside County sheriff’s Sgt. Joseph Borja said.

Deputies found personal items and signs of a struggle in a field Lopez often used as a shortcut home. Searchers covered the area for several days while the family of Lopez pleaded with the unknown kidnapper to let her go.

On Tuesday, a resident driving his tractor-mower in a large, remote field found human remains near a stretch of desert road a few miles from the site where investigators had searched. The decomposed body, shirtless and clad in jeans, was found face-down in a grove of trees.

Borja said the parents of Lopez were the first to be contacted after the body was identified through dental records.

“I believe this has been made personal because we all have children,” Borja said. “It’s probably our worst nightmare that our kids can just be taken from a street and killed.”

Before the body was found, authorities held a press conference to say they were out of clues and to announce a $35,000 reward for information.

Borja said it was unknown whether the girl was taken by an acquaintance or a stranger. Her boyfriend had been interviewed and was not a suspect, Barja said.

He would not provide details on the items found at the site where Lopez was abducted, explaining that releasing further details could hamper the investigation.

“We haven’t caught the suspect who killed Norma so obviously there is at least a murderer out there, and so I would be vigilant, I would be aware,” he said. “If I was a parent I would keep track of my children. I would do everything I could to ensure their safety.”

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