For the first time in Orange County, and the second time in the state, improved DNA technology has led to an arrest of a suspect in a cold case, authorities said Tuesday in detailing how they linked a defendant accused of raping a 6-year-old girl to the 2012 crime.
Scientists in the state's crime laboratory can now search for DNA connections to female defendants -- until last year, familial DNA markers were limited to male defendants -- which led them early this year to a "close relative" of 45-year-old Francisco Javier Lopez of Montebello.
Santa Ana police then began surveillance of Lopez, which led to the collection of "discarded evidence" that provided investigators with Lopez's DNA, Santa Ana police Chief David Valentin said. Scientists in the Orange County Crime Laboratory then developed a match from Lopez's DNA to the evidence collected from the rape of the girl.
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Lopez, who's being held without bail, is charged with five counts of forcible lewd and lascivious acts with a child younger than 14, three counts of sexual penetration of a child younger than 11, and one count each of kidnapping to commit a sex offense, oral copulation of a child younger than 11, sexual intercourse with a child younger than 11 and dissuading a witness.
He also faces sentencing enhancement allegations of causing bodily injury to a child younger than 14 and aggravated kidnapping and faces life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted as charged.
The girl was abducted on July 15, 2012 "in broad daylight" while she was playing with a 4-year-old boy in front of an apartment complex in the 1400 block of South Townsend Street between 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on a Sunday night, Valentin said.
The suspect parked his car, walked up to the girl and said, "I have something for you to give to your mother," then grabbed her and took her away, police said.
The kidnapper drove to a parking lot in the area, where he sexually assaulted the child. About 90 minutes to two hours later, she was "essentially dumped out'' in a neighborhood where the people who were searching for the tot found her, Valentin said.
Lopez lived in the same apartment complex as the victim, but did not appear to have any contact with the child or her family prior to the abduction, Valentin said, adding that his criminal background did not include any similar crimes.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said the girl's abduction and assault "boggles the mind" considering how brazenly it was carried out.
The county's local database of DNA was critical to solving the case, according to Spitzer. He noted that when police submitted DNA evidence from the scene to the state's system three times over the years, they did not get a match.
The unnamed female relative of Lopez was convicted of an unspecified crime in 2014 and her DNA was entered into the state's database, Spitzer said.
The problem was the state's scientists until recently lacked the technology to also include usable searches of female defendants.
"The DNA sat in the state system for four years until the science caught up," the county's top prosecutor said.
When police were notified of a close familial match, they turned their attention to Lopez, Spitzer said, adding that "good, old-fashioned police work" with surveillance of the defendant led to his arrest.
If Orange County did not have its own DNA database, the crime likely wouldn't have been solved, Spitzer said.
The advance in DNA technology could lead to "thousands'' more cases being solved, said Elissa Mayo of the state Department of Justice's forensic services division.