The 8-year-old Tarzana girl who was found dead in an apartment closet had been sodomized and choked before being stuffed into a suitcase, according to charges filed Tuesday that could bring the death penalty for the man accused of killing her.
After two days of police investigation, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office formally charged Hooman Ashkan Panah, 22, with kidnaping and murdering Nicole Parker, who vanished Saturday morning outside her father's apartment in the same Woodland Hills complex where Panah lives. Detectives discovered the girl's body in Panah's bedroom closet late Sunday after he apparently tried to commit suicide by slashing his wrists and taking sleeping pills.
The girl was killed within hours of her disappearance, Los Angeles Police Department Detective Joel Price said. Investigators have been unable to determine a motive for the slaying other than sexual assault, Price said, adding that alcohol and drugs were not involved.
"How do you get inside one of these people's minds? I don't know," he said.
After a two-day silence, Nicole's mother also spoke out Tuesday, praising friends and authorities for their exhaustive efforts to find her daughter, but lashing out at the girl's accused killer. If given the chance, 44-year-old Lori Parker said, she would not hesitate to take justice into her own hands.
"His life isn't worth anything compared to hers. It wouldn't be an equal trade," Parker said. "But I'd do it just to feel better for the five or 10 minutes."
Nicole "was the sunshine of my heart. She was my only girl. She was my baby," Parker said, choking back tears.
Laughing and crying during an hourlong interview in her Tarzana home, Parker said she was overwhelmed by the hundreds of volunteers who turned out to search for her daughter.
"They did a phenomenal job. If anything could have brought Nicole back, it would have been the love and support they have shown," said Parker, who works as a paralegal. "I don't fault anybody for this besides the asshole that killed her."
Friends of the family said a memorial service is scheduled for today at 1 p.m. at Our Lady of Grace Church in Encino, which runs the school Nicole attended.
In the charges filed Tuesday, prosecutors alleged three separate special circumstances that could carry the death penalty: that Nicole was killed while kidnaped, while being molested and while being sodomized.
Panah's arraignment, though scheduled for Tuesday, was postponed at least until today as he continued to recover from his failed suicide attempt. He remained in the jail ward at County-USC Medical Center.
The sometime community college student and department store clerk was arrested Sunday after residents in a West Hills neighborhood reported that a man was wandering down the street in a drunken and disheveled state. Statements Panah then made to detectives led them to suspect him in connection with Nicole's disappearance and eventually prompted a search warrant on the Ventura Boulevard apartment Panah shared with his mother.
News of the allegations against Panah surprised fellow employees at the Mervyn's Department Store in Canoga Park, where he had worked since 1989, part of the time in the children's section.
"Of course we were shocked," said one woman who declined to give her name. "How would you feel?"
District sales manager Mark Thienes confirmed that Panah was a sales associate in the infant and children's department--part of a rotation through all sections of the Fallbrook Avenue store.
In addition to landing his job at Mervyn's in 1989, Panah that fall enrolled in Pierce College after a year spent as a sophomore at Taft High School. Taft Principal Ron Berz said his "attendance was a little sporadic," especially toward the end of the school year.
At Pierce, Panah did not maintain a full-time course load, Los Angeles Community College District officials said.
Panah also performed 64 hours of community service work at Pierce in December, 1991. The general utility work and campus cleanup was part of a 240-hour community service sentence handed down after he was convicted earlier that year on two misdemeanor hit-and-run charges. He also received three years probation for that crime.
The conviction stemmed from a 1990 accident in which Panah's car hit another driven by a woman who was 8 1/2 months pregnant. Panah was caught speeding away from the accident after good Samaritans chased his vehicle and wrote down his license number.
The woman, contacted Tuesday, said she suffered bruises in the crash but gave birth to a healthy baby girl two weeks later.
This story was reported by Times special correspondents Thom Mrozek and Scott Glover. It was written by Times staff writer Henry Chu.