A Newhall teen-ager pleaded not guilty Wednesday to a charge that he strangled 7-year-old Sara Nan Hodges.
At his arraignment in Sylmar Juvenile Court, Curtis Cooper, 14, denied he murdered the girl, whose body was found behind a water bed in his bedroom Sunday, three days after she had disappeared.
Cooper will remain in custody and will appear in court April 25, when a trial date is to 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.
Mother at Hearing
Cooper’s mother, accompanied by two social workers from the public defender’s office, was the only relative of the defendant who attended the hearing. She broke into tears as she waited at the defense table for her son to be brought to the courtroom.
When Cooper appeared, he sat next to his mother. But the pair avoided eye contact and did not speak to each other during the brief proceeding.
Outside court, Cooper’s attorney, Public Defender Barbara Duey, would not disclose her defense plans. The attorney said she had not had enough time to review the case.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Michelle Rosenblatt declined to discuss a possible motive for the slaying. Citing juvenile privacy laws, the prosecutor also refused to respond to reports that Cooper committed burglaries in Spring Hill, Fla., where he reportedly lived with his father before moving to Newhall in February to live with his mother.
“I can’t confirm or deny anything about his background,” Rosenblatt said.
Authorities in Florida also declined to comment.
Tests Not Complete
Rosenblatt said an investigation is continuing and that tests by the Los Angeles County sheriff’s crime lab to determine whether the young girl was sexually assaulted are not complete.
Investigators believe the victim was killed Thursday afternoon, hours before deputies launched a massive search for her.
Cooper, who assisted in the search, was arrested late Sunday after the child’s body was found in a house 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 young Cooper had recently joined a church group, held a strong interest in drafting, and helped out with chores around the house.
“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 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.”
Funeral services for Sara are scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday at Eternal Valley Memorial Park and Mortuary on Sierra Highway. Funeral director Dan Lang said the mortuary was donating the services.
“It’s a community effort,” Lang said, adding that area florists had donated flowers.