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7-Year-Old Strangled : Newhall Boy, 14, Pleads Innocent in Girl’s Death

Times Staff Writer

A 14-year-old Newhall boy pleaded not guilty Wednesday to a charge that he strangled a 7-year-old neighbor girl last week.

At his arraignment in Sylmar Juvenile Court, Curtis Cooper denied that he murdered Sara Nan Hodges, whose body was found behind a water bed in the boy’s bedroom Sunday, three days after she disappeared. Cooper will remain in custody and is to appear in court April 25, when a trial date will be scheduled.

Although Cooper cannot be tried as an adult, if convicted, he could serve time in the California Youth Authority until he is 25. A defendant must be 16 or older to be tried as an adult in California, authorities said.

The boy’s mother, accompanied by two social workers from the public defender’s office, was the only relative of Cooper who attended the hearing Wednesday. She broke into sobs as she waited at the defense table for her son to be brought to the courtroom.

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When he appeared wearing a gray sweat shirt, brown pants and tennis shoes, he sat next to his mother but they avoided eye contact and did not speak to each other during the brief proceeding.

Outside the courtroom, Cooper’s attorney, Public Defender Barbara Duey, would not disclose her defense plans. Duey said she had not had enough time to review the case.

Lived in Florida

Deputy Dist. Atty. Michelle R. Rosenblatt declined to discuss a possible motive for the slaying. Citing juvenile privacy laws, Rosenblatt also refused to respond to reports that Cooper had committed burglaries in Spring Hill, Fla., where authorities said he lived with his father before moving to Newhall in February to stay with his mother.

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“I can’t confirm or deny anything about his background,” Rosenblatt said. Authorities in Florida also declined comment on the case.

Rosenblatt said that an investigation is continuing and that tests by the Los Angeles County sheriff’s crime lab to determine whether the young girl had been sexually assaulted are not complete.

Investigators believe that the victim was killed Thursday afternoon, hours before sheriff’s deputies launched a massive search for the girl.

The boy, who assisted in the search, was arrested late Sunday after the girl’s body was found stuffed between a wall and the headboard of a water bed. The house is in the 24900 block of Alderbrook Drive, five doors from where the victim lived with her mother Linda Hodges and sister Tisha Gates, 16.

Olga Kaczmar, who rented two rooms in her house to Cooper and his mother, sent a letter to newspapers this week describing Cooper as “quiet, polite, obedient and very willing.”

“Yes, he had a troubled past life in Florida and that’s why he was here,” Kaczmar wrote. “His father threw up his hands and said, ‘Enough!’ and here he was.

“His mother and I took over,” Kaczmar continued. “In our home of friendship, we believed we could help him.”

Kaczmar wrote that the boy had recently joined a church group, held a strong interest in drafting and helped with house chores.

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“We didn’t see unhappiness or hostility,” she wrote. “We thought everything was working out just fine. How could we have known that destiny could turn out so ugly?”

Kaczmar said in a brief interview Wednesday that she wrote the letter to help her deal with her feelings. She also said the boy’s mother “hasn’t slept hardly at all since this happened. She already is totally destroyed. I don’t know if she can get through this.”

Services for Sara Hodges are scheduled at 2 p.m. Friday in the Chapel of the Oaks at Eternal Valley Memorial Park and Mortuary on Sierra Highway. Dan Lang, director of the mortuary, said his firm is donating the services.

“It’s a community effort,” Lang said, adding that area florists had donated flowers for the services.


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