Police conduct checkpoints, question sex offenders in hunt for killer of Calif. teen

By Gillian Flaccus, AP
Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sex offenders questioned in hunt for Calif. killer

MORENO VALLEY, Calif. — Investigators trying to determine who abducted and murdered a 17-year-old girl as she left a summer school class conducted vehicle checkpoints and questioned sex offenders Thursday as the hunt for her killer expanded.

Authorities questioned drivers on a street outside Norma Lopez’s school, near the site where her belongings were found last week. Detectives hoped to find someone who saw the girl close to the time she was abducted.

At her home, police guarded the mourning family’s privacy. An officer took down names of people stopping by to pay respects and only escorted inside those who were confirmed family friends.

Investigators also began contacting 14 registered sex offenders listed on the Megan’s Law website who live within a 2-mile radius of the high school where Lopez was last seen.

The raven-haired teen disappeared July 15 after leaving a class at Valley View High School, where she would have been a senior this year. Authorities said she was going to meet a friend.

When she didn’t show up, her younger sister and a friend went to look for her, found some of her personal items in a field 1½ blocks from the school and called authorities, said Sgt. Joseph Borja, a spokesman for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.

The field, a well-known neighborhood shortcut, is off a street that dead-ends at the base of boulder-studded hills cut with trails.

Searchers fruitlessly covered the area for several days before Lopez’s body was discovered Tuesday by a man clearing brush in another rural field about two miles away.

Police want to speak with the driver of a green SUV seen speeding from the area the day Lopez vanished.

Authorities have declined to release her cause of death, citing the ongoing investigation, and would not say if she was sexually assaulted. Her decomposed body was identified using dental records.

Moreno Valley is a city of 186,000 about 60 miles east of Los Angeles, between March Air Reserve Base and a swath of unforgiving, rugged terrain known as The Badlands.

The teen’s disappearance drew wide attention across Southern California, where the high-profile abduction-murders of two other teenage girls in San Diego County — one jogging alone this year and the other walking to school in 2009 — led to a sex offender who ultimately admitted to the killings and is now imprisoned.

Lopez’s best friend Giovanna Gutierrez, 17, said she was supposed to meet Lopez at the high school for senior class pictures the day she disappeared.

“She didn’t have any problems. She was always full of laughter,” Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez recalled how Lopez and her two sisters, who attended high school together, would choreograph salsa and merengue dance routines for the students’ Latin American cultural club and perform them at pep rallies.

About 2,000 people showed up Wednesday at a candlelight vigil for Lopez at the high school.

“It shouldn’t have happened to her,” Gutierrez said. “She had a bright future ahead of her.”

Lopez’s parents, who are originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, were being assisted by the Mexican consulate, said Carolina Zaragoza, head of the consulate’s local office.

(This version corrects location of checkpoints.)

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