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Autopsy could determine if body is that of missing teenage girl

July 21, 2010 |  8:12 am


Authorities on Wednesday morning were set to perform an autopsy on the body that was found in a Moreno Valley field on Tuesday afternoon, just two miles from where a 17-year-old girl disappeared last week on her walk home from summer school.

See map showing approximate location of body found in Moreno Valley The body was too decomposed to determine the gender or identity, officials said. Investigators don't know how long the remains were in the field but say the recent heat wave likely accelerated decomposition.

Dental records and DNA tests also will be used to determine whether the remains are those of Norma Lopez, who authorities believe was abducted Thursday, triggering a massive search throughout central Riverside County.

A local resident doing yard work found the body at around 3 p.m. about a mile south of the 60 Freeway, just off Theodore Street, on the eastern outskirts of the city in an area surrounded by wheat fields, horse ranches and jagged hills. The remains were found in tall grass near a line of trees but were otherwise not concealed, said Sgt. Joe Borja, a Sheriff's Department spokesman.

"I know you're all interested in finding out whether this is Norma Lopez or not, and honestly we do not know," Borja told reporters gathered several hundred yards from the crime scene Tuesday. "No matter which way it is, it's still a tragic event. There's someone out in the field who is dead."

Borja said police warned the Lopez family about the grim discovery, and they remained secluded in their Moreno Valley home.

Just hours before the body was found, Norma's mother and father appeared at a news conference at Moreno Valley City Hall and delivered an emotional plea for their daughter's safe return.

"If someone has her or knows about her, please … just call. We just need to know about her," her father, Martin, said in Spanish. "It's destroying us. Every day that passes, every hour."

Norma was reported missing at about 12:30 p.m. Thursday by her older sister, Sonja, after she failed to return home from summer school. She was out of class at Valley View High School by 10 a.m. and had plans to meet her older sister and a friend, authorities said.

Investigators said they found some of Norma's belongings and signs of a struggle in a vacant field along Cottonwood Avenue. They also are looking for the driver and passengers of a newer-model green SUV seen near the dirt field at the time of her disappearance.

After the body was found, deputies roped off the area and waited for coroner's officials to arrive and examine the remains. FBI investigators, assisting the Sheriff's Department in the case, also went to the scene.

"It could take as short as one day to a week to determine who that person is," Borja said.

Barin Butler, 44, owner of a horse ranch across the road from where the body was found, said he had been horseback riding around his property the day before and had not seen anything suspicious.

Earlier Tuesday, the Sheriff's Department announced a $35,000 reward for any information leading to Norma's return or the arrest and conviction of anyone responsible for her abduction. Authorities urged anyone with information about the case to call (877) 242-4345, or send an e-mail to findnorma@riversidesheriff.org.

-- Phil Willon

Photo: A portion of Theodore Street on the eastern edge of Moreno Valley is blocked off as authorities examine the scene where the body was found on July 20, 2010. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times