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Hundreds attend service for slain Moreno Valley teenager

More than 500 people lined up in the heat Wednesday to pay their respects to 17-year-old Norma Lopez, walking silently into a Moreno Valley chapel and past a coffin draped with pink roses and a tearful mother and father saying their final goodbyes to their young daughter.

Many who came expressed both anger and fear that such a good child could suffer such a gruesome end to her young life. Norma was abducted while walking home from summer school earlier this month and found dead in a grassy field days later. The killer remains at large.

“I have a daughter who’s 13 years old. She is going to the same high school. I went to that high school. It just hits so close to home,” said Yvonne Robles, 31, a teacher’s assistant in Moreno Valley. “We just wanted to come by and show her family that we’re all behind them.”

The St. Christopher Catholic Church overflowed Wednesday afternoon with teenagers and community members for the viewing and rosary service, and a large crowd is expected for a formal Mass and memorial at the church on Thursday. During Wednesday’s service, a collage of photographs was displayed on the wall beneath a tiny stained-glass window, allowing attendees to watch Lopez grow from a toddler taking her first steps to her teenage years.

“I’m here because we lost a member of our community, a young woman who was just about to begin her life,” said Vi Lindsey, a professor of social work who drove from Riverside with her husband. “When something like this happens, it happens to all of our children, to all of us.”

Among those who came to pay respects was Carrie McGonigle, the mother of 14-year-old Amber Dubois, who was abducted while walking to class in Escondido in February 2009 and later found dead. The registered sex offender convicted of murdering and raping Dubois and 17-year-old Chelsea King, a Poway High School student who a year later vanished while jogging near Lake Hodges, was sentenced in May to life in prison without the chance of parole.

“I just wanted to send my condolences. I lasted about three minutes in the memorial, and then I had to leave. It was just too many memories. I was overwhelmed,” McGonigle said.

At the very least, McGonigle said, she hopes Norma’s death reminds parents to always be aware of where their children go, and to teach them to avoid dangerous habits such as walking alone in isolated places.

Norma was reported missing July 15 when she didn’t return from summer school at Valley View High School, triggering a citywide search. Investigators found her purse, as well as signs of a struggle, in a vacant field along Cottonwood Avenue, a shortcut she took every day to a friend’s house.

Norma’s body was found in a field on the eastern edge of town five days later by a resident doing yard work. The area is just off the California 60 and is surrounded by vast wheat fields.

Earl Crites, who found her body near his house, dropped by St. Christopher’s to offer his support to the family.

“I really just wanted to let them know that I’m real sorry for what happened,” said Crites, 69.

Sgt. Dean Spivacke of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department’s Central Homicide Unit said investigators are “examining scientific evidence in an attempt to locate DNA” of the killer, but no suspects or persons of interest have emerged so far.

“It’s such an unusual occurrence to have someone kidnapped in the middle of the day,” Spivacke said. “That makes us think it could be someone she knows, but then it definitely could be a stranger abduction as well. We just don’t know.”

Police also continue to search for the driver of a newer model green SUV that was seen speeding away from the area where Norma disappeared.

Authorities ask anyone with information about the case to call (877) 242-4345, or send an e-mail to findnormaskiller@riversidesheriff.org.

phil.willon@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Marosi contributed to this report


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