‘Bitter joy’ at murder arrests

Times Staff Writer

For 13 years, police detectives suspected that two cousins were responsible for Placentia’s No. 1 murder mystery, the slashing death of a promising Cal State Fullerton student.

But each frustrated investigators by providing the other with an alibi.

The physical evidence was never enough to tie them to the crime, and one of the men dismissed the police department’s focus on him as a “waste of my time.”

Both had stayed in the north Orange County suburb, remaining to some as nettlesome reminders of the crime that ended the life of the young dark-haired woman with the sweet smile and big hoop earrings.

On Friday, Sam and Xavier Lopez, both 35, were arrested by investigators, who said new DNA test results recently obtained solidly linked both men to the 1994 slaying of Sam Lopez’s former girlfriend. Both have been charged with murder.


Armando Lopez, 36, the brother of Sam Lopez, was also arrested and charged with being an accessory to murder. Police say he helped the two conceal the killing and told a witness to keep quiet.

On Feb. 12, 1994, 20-year-old Cathy Torrez, a Cal State Fullerton honors student, left her work at a Placentia Sav-On drug store. According to police, she told a co-worker she was going to meet Sam Lopez.

A week later, Torrez’s Toyota Corolla was found in the parking lot of Placentia-Linda Hospital. Her body was locked in the trunk and had stab wounds across the neck and chest.

Sam Lopez, then a cabinetmaker, had dated her off and on while they attended Valencia High School in Placentia, and the two had considered eloping shortly before Torrez was killed.

In 1997, authorities said forensic testing linked Xavier Lopez’s DNA and fingerprints to evidence found in the victim’s car. He was arrested, but released when the district attorney’s office said the evidence was insufficient.

When he walked out of jail, he told a reporter: “It’s a waste of my time. I don’t know what they were doing.”

The Torrez family refused to let the case die. Nearly a decade after the murder, Cathy’s mother, Mary Bennett, took a job as a receptionist in the city’s planning department only because her desk was just outside one of the Police Department’s doors. A sister, Debbie, took a job in the department’s Explorer program for teens and later as a victim’s advocate in Orange County. A brother, Marty, took a job in the court system.

Each time a new police chief was appointed, the diminutive mother introduced herself and recounted the case, mentioning her daughter’s love for the clarinet and violin and her desire to be a social worker.

Bennett grew close to Placentia Police Sgt. Daron Wyatt, who has been the primary detective on the case since 1997. She celebrated the birth of his child, and she frequently gave him calls that often included the words, “I’m still here.”

“I knew that, of course,” Wyatt said. “She’s part of my family and I am part of hers.”

In turn, the city responded with relentless investigations, spending 6,000 hours in June 2006 alone at a cost of $300,000. A Cal State Fullerton learning center for young children was named in Cathy Torrez’s honor. The city announced new rewards for information leading to a conviction, totaling nearly $100,000.

“At any given time, it’s not too off to say that someone has been consistently looking for her killer,” said Corinne Loomis, a detective in Placentia. “Everything just converged to really grip the community and the department -- because of her youth, because of her promise and the heinous nature of her case.”

Only DNA evidence that was deemed insufficient had linked Sam Lopez to the case until last month, when additional forensic testing was completed on evidence that also advanced the case against Xavier Lopez, the district attorney’s office said. Authorities declined to give further details.

The police captured the suspects Friday at two locations.

Xavier Lopez lost his freedom at the Anaheim home of a girlfriend’s mother. Sam and Armando Lopez were taken into custody at the Placentia house they shared. A SWAT team blasted windows and used noisemakers to flush them out. The assault team grabbed them as they fled.

Police said that information obtained from previous contacts with the men led them to use the SWAT team and precautionary tactics in the arrests.

Police officials said they also uncovered an identity theft operation at the Placentia home that provided the cousins’ main source of income. Among the evidence seized was material used in identity theft, stolen goods and more than $10,000 cash, Wyatt said. Additional charges related to the evidence were pending, he said. No charges have yet been filed in connection with the material they found.

Armando and Sam had both married since Cathy Torrez’s death, but the marriages fell apart and they shared the debris-filled house at the time of their arrest, authorities said.

Bennett received the news of the arrests by phone moments after their capture while she drank coffee at a fast food restaurant and read the Bible, a daily devotion she carries out in her daughter’s memory.

“It came out of the blue,” Bennett said. She appeared numbed by the news and broke down in sobs.

“What Mary and her family did -- and there was strategy involved -- is make sure that everyone knew they were going to be right here until it was finally over,” Wyatt said.

Loomis said she watched Wyatt and Bennett embrace at the police station after the three suspects were transferred to jail. “You really can’t put a price tag on that, to sit across from someone, to say that someone who committed a heinous crime is going to be held accountable. It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Loomis said. “It’s been equally as bad to have a case where you knew who did it, but the proof seemed to be a million miles away separated by a grand canyon.”

Said Wyatt: “Today was a bitter joy.”