Nicole Parker, the 8-year-old Tarzana girl who disappeared over the weekend but later was found slain in an apartment closet, was sodomized and choked before being stuffed into a suitcase, authorities said Tuesday as they filed a potential death-penalty case against the man accused of abducting and 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 the girl, who vanished Saturday morning outside her father's apartment in the same Woodland Hills complex where the suspect lives. Detectives discovered Nicole'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 Saturday, said Detective Joel Price of the Los Angeles Police Department. 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.
In addition to murder, prosecutors charged Panah with kidnaping, sodomy and child molestation. They also alleged that Nicole was killed while kidnaped, while being molested and while being sodomized--three separate special circumstances that each carry possible death sentences.
"The only solace that I have is that she was killed quickly," Nicole's mother, Lori Parker, said during an emotional interview at her Tarzana home Tuesday. "My hope is that it was so quickly she didn't have time to be afraid."
Panah's arraignment, though scheduled for Tuesday, was postponed 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 Nevada Avenue in a drunken and disheveled state. Statements Panah made to detectives led them to suspect him in connection with Nicole's disappearance and eventually prompted a search warrant on the apartment Panah shared with his mother in the 20500 block of Ventura Boulevard.
News of the allegations against Panah surprised his fellow employees at the Mervyn's department store in Canoga Park, where he had worked since 1989--part of that time in the children's department, according to store executives.
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. But Thienes declined to elaborate on Panah's work history, saying, "We are turning all employment records (over) to the L.A. Police Department."
In addition to landing his job, Panah enrolled in Pierce College in the fall of 1989 after being a student at Taft High School, where 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. This semester, he enrolled in a history class and two oceanography courses taught by instructor Ray Wells.
"He was kind of a slight guy that never seemed very well focused on what he was doing," Wells said Tuesday. "I was kind of wondering what he was doing here. I think he was more interested in the social aspects of school."
In Wells' lab class, which required more hands-on work and interaction among students, Panah seemed to keep to himself, Wells said. "I didn't notice him hanging around anyone in particular."
Panah also performed 64 hours of community service at Pierce in December, 1991. The general utility work and campus cleanup was part of a 240-hour sentence handed down after he was convicted earlier that year on two misdemeanor hit-and-run charges.
Court records show that the conviction stemmed from an April 19, 1990, accident in which Panah hit a car driven by a woman who was eight months pregnant at the time. Although he sped away from the scene, Panah was caught after onlookers gave chase and copied down his license plate.
The woman, who asked not to be named, said Tuesday that she suffered bruises in the crash but gave birth to a healthy baby girl two weeks later.
Along with community service, Panah received three years of probation for the crime, according to court documents. The probation remains in effect.
After his arrest Sunday morning in West Hills, an incoherent Panah told police they might find Nicole Parker's body in the Santa Monica Mountains.
Suspicious, investigators also forced entry into his apartment, which is located directly across a courtyard from the apartment of Edward Parker, Nicole's father. LAPD Lt. George Rock said an emergency search was conducted to see if the girl might be there and still alive, but the cursory sweep produced nothing.
"There were no signs of life or a child underneath a bed or any obvious places that a live child could be," Rock said.
Police then posted a guard at the apartment while officers sought a warrant for a more thorough search Sunday night. Rock said Nicole's body was discovered after police spent nearly an hour in the apartment.
The girl's neck "showed signs of being compressed . . . but there isn't anything clear here that would be the sole cause of death," Price, the detective, said.
Although the girl had been sexually assaulted, he declined to say whether her body was clothed when found.
Friends of the Parker family said a memorial service for Nicole is scheduled for today at 1 p.m. at Our Lady of Grace Church in Encino, which ran the school the girl attended.
In lieu of flowers, the Parker family has asked that donations be made to a trust fund set up in Nicole's name at First Interstate Bank, 16633 Ventura Blvd., Encino. The money will help defray burial expenses.
Mrozek is a special correspondent and Chu is a Times staff writer. Special correspondent Scott Glover also contributed to this story.