Investigators Seek Witnesses, Clues to Kidnap-Murder

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Investigators searching for clues in the violent rape and murder of a young woman abducted from a Carson drive-in theater appealed Monday to witnesses for help in finding the men who also brutally beat the woman's boyfriend and then burned the couple's car.

In Mexico on Monday, Roberto Franco, father of the slain woman, was recovering from a mild heart attack he suffered when he was told of the murder. Franco, who lives near Guadalajara, had planned to come to California next month to take his daughter, Irene Franco, 20, back to Mexico, friends and family said.

Sheriff's investigators say their search for the killers is complicated by the fact that there is no record of those who attended the South Bay 6 Drive-in Friday night, when the couple were abducted at gunpoint by three armed men.

"We are soliciting help, not only from those who were in attendance at the theater, but also people who may have been in the vicinity outside the theater at the time, and those who may have seen the suspects drive away," said Sheriff's Deputy Bill Wehner.

Friends and family of the young woman say they will take her body to Mexico for burial as soon as authorities complete an autopsy. The funeral could be as early as Friday.

A benefactor who wishes to remain anonymous has offered to pay the costs of transporting Franco's body to her hometown, and a mortuary in Guadalajara is donating the cost of the funeral, said Father Luis Valbuena of Holy Family Church in Wilmington, which Franco frequently attended.

As hundreds of other movie-goers sat in their cars at the sprawling drive-in near the San Diego and Harbor freeways, the gunmen tied up Franco and her date, Jesus Martinez, 26, and drove them to an alley in an industrial area north of Carson. There, they severely beat Martinez and tied him with an electrical cord. Before the assailants drove away with Franco, they told Martinez not to worry, saying they would drop her off in a few minutes, Martinez told authorities.

The following morning, Franco's body was found in a South Los Angeles field. She had been shot in the head. The car was found burned and abandoned near Watts.

Franco's boyfriend was too distraught to talk about the incident Monday, according to his mother, Theresa Martinez.

"They were both victims," she said. "He does not feel very good at all. . . . Whoever imagined such a thing would occur to them?"

She said the couple had been dating about three months. Martinez lives in Gardena and Franco lived in Wilmington.

"She did not deserve this," said Irma Plascensia, Franco's best friend. The two had known each other since they were schoolgirls in the town of Tepatitlan, just outside of Guadalajara, where Franco's father and six brothers and sisters still live.

Franco's mother died when she was young, Plascensia said.

Plascensia said her friend was a hard-working young woman with strong family and religious values who never stayed out past 10 p.m.

About 10 months ago, Plascensia said, Franco and a younger sister came to stay with her and her family in Wilmington for a monthlong vacation. The sister returned to Mexico, but Franco stayed.

"She loved it here," Plascensia said. "She said her future was here. She told me she would like to stay longer, and I said, 'This is your house."'

Plascensia said Franco had planned to attend medical school , but learned just before her vacation that she had not been accepted at a school, a competitive process in Mexico that has more to do with the small number of medical colleges than with test performance.

Franco found a job at a shoe store and the girlfriends attended evening English classes at a neighboring high school until a few months ago.

"The school is far away, and as it gets darker earlier now, we didn't want to attend classes last semester because we have to walk," Plascensia said. "But we were going to start classes again in February."

Plascensia said she is going to Mexico to see her friend buried.

"I am going to accompany her," she said. "I am taking her to Mexico."

Father Valbuena said it has been difficult explaining the slaying to Franco's family.

"For a town like Tepatitlan, this is unheard of," he said. "To have something like this happen, they don't understand it. They are saying, how can you go to the movies and have someone attack you and kill you so brutally and then burn your car? They don't understand it because they don't understand how a human being can do such a thing."

Meanwhile, authorities were investigating the similarities between the murder and an abduction Monday in which two gunmen forced a Bassett couple out of their car and abducted the woman.

The 33-year-old woman and her husband, 34, were in their car in a park in the City of Industry when the men approached, ordered the husband out and drove off with the woman, who was released unharmed about an hour later and 12 miles away in San Dimas.

Deputy Hal Grant said Monday's assailants "answer the same general description" as those in the slaying. They were believed to be driving the victims' 1988 white Thunderbird, with California license 2HKY059.

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