Jurors who will decide whether Jorge Torrez should be executed for killing a sailor in 2009 will hear more evidence Wednesday tying him to the stabbing deaths of two young girls in Zion in 2005, brutal killings that were followed by a troubled investigation.
Torrez, 25, who was a Marine when he strangled the sailor in her barracks near the Pentagon, is a “calculating, methodical sexual predator,” prosecutors say.
He avoided suspicion after the Mother’s Day killings of Laura Hobbs, 8, and her best friend, Krystal Tobias, 9, nine years ago although Torrez knew Tobias and associates have testified that he kept a collection of knives and a Ninja star. He was 16 years old then.
Instead, Hobbs’ father, Jerry Hobbs, confessed to the crime – falsely, authorities now say – following questioning that stretched across 24 hours.
With the father behind bars, Torrez was blamed for the girls’ killings only after Virginia authorities took a DNA sample from him after his arrest for separate predatory crimes against women — and the genetic fingerprint linked him to the killings in his hometown, Zion.
Previewing what is to emerge Wednesday, federal prosecutors have said Torrez laughed when he described to a jailhouse informant how he killed the girls, stabbing Laura Hobbs in both eyes. He also laughed about how the wrong person, her father, had been charged, they said.
Jerry Hobbs is not expected to testify in Virginia, where jurors are considering whether Torrez should be put to death or sent to prison for the rest of his life for the first-degree murder of the 20-year-old sailor.
But on Tuesday, the father’s haunting moans were heard in court when prosecutors replayed a 911 call to Zion police made by Laura Hobbs’ grandfather, Arthur Hollabaugh. The father and grandfather were in the park searching for the missing girls, part of a large-scale community search.
First the grandfather called 911 to say the men had come across Laura Hobbs’ bicycle, which the two girls were riding together. Minutes later, Hollabaugh said, “Jerry started screaming that he found the girls and they were dead.”
“I told him, ‘No, they’re not,’ “ Hollabaugh said, weeping from the witness stand.
The gruesome reality soon came into focus for the grandfather, who called 911 again. “We found the girls’ bodies. They’re over here. They’re both dead,” he reported. The sound of crying and moaning in the background was from Jerry Hobbs, Hollabaugh told jurors.
As Torrez looked on, jurors also saw color photos of the two lifeless girls, their limbs askew. Judge Liam O’Grady had cautioned jurors they were about to see “disturbing” images.
Jurors also heard from Kent Ashton, who lived in Zion, was an elementary school principal with the Gurnee School District and was out in Beulah Park the day of the killings.
Ashton, now a principal in Mesa, Ariz., said he saw two girls, about 8 or 9 years old, sharing a bicycle, enjoying the weather and conversing. He said he saw them again standing with the bike as he was leaving the park and they were talking to a “gentleman” who looked to about 15 years old.
Ashton indicated that as an educator, he was concerned about the age difference. “The appearance didn’t click with me,” he said, but the girls did not seem “in any type of distress.”
He said the teenaged boy had darker skin, dark hair and very dark eyes. He also said that after he heard about the slain girls on the news, he contacted the Zion Police Department to tell authorities what he had seen.
Another witness, Zion chiropractor Brent Paxton, testified that he had heard a girl’s scream in the park the day the girls were killed. He called it “a moderate scream — a boy-chasing-a-girl type of scream.” He also said he later saw an abandoned bike, but thought its owner might have been “taking a bathroom break.”
The same jury that will decide Torrez’s punishment found him guilty on April 8 of killing the sailor, Amanda Jean Snell, in 2009.
During the penalty phase of the case, Torrez has told his defense attorneys not to make any statements, call any witnesses or cross-examine government witnesses, his attorneys said. The judge urged Torrez on Tuesday to reconsider.
Torrez has yet to be tried in Lake County for the girls’ killings. It emerged in 2007 that DNA from the scene did not belong to Jerry Hobbs, but Lake County prosecutors insisted on his guilt until the DNA match to Torrez in 2010.
Jurors heard Tuesday from Andy Ulloa, a Waukegan detective who is with the Lake County Major Crimes Task Force. He interviewed Torrez in the Arlington, Va., police department in June 2010 and told him his DNA matched that found on Laura Hobbs’ hand.
“I don’t know how my DNA would end up on her,” Torrez told him, according to excerpts of the interrogation played in court.
Torrez spoke sympathetically about the killings, acknowledging that he was a friend of Krystal Tobias’ half-brother and knew the girl pretty well. “Horrible,” Torrez told the detective. “A little girl was innocent and she got killed.”
Torrez said he even went to the Tobias home the day after the girls were killed and helped keep the media at bay, saying the family had no comment.
Talking about the two girls, the detective later told Torrez, “They had a future, played with Barbie, loved the Back Street Boys and all that stuff.” How do you explain the DNA, the detective persisted.
“I don’t know,” Torrez said at one point. “I don’t know how my DNA would end up on her,” he said at another.
Hobbs was freed later in 2010 and Torrez was charged with the Zion crime two years later.
Krystal’s mother, Marina Christina Tobias, testified that she was worried when her daughter went missing, and she searched for her with others. She said she learned of her daughter's death when she went to Laura Hobbs’ house. Whispering from the stand, Marina Tobias recalled Laura's mother, Sheila Hollabaugh, saying to her: “Don't you know they already found them and they're dead?”
Krystal's half-brother, Alberto Segura, testified that he spoke with Torrez from jail after his arrest in 2010 for the unrelated crimes against women in northern Virginia. Torrez lived close to Segura and his family as a child, and the pair were friends, Segura testified. Segura asked his one-time friend during a phone call whether he committed the Zion crimes, he testified. Torrez paused before answering that he didn't, Segura said.
“He had me second-guessing,” Segura said.
When the hearing ends, jurors will be asked to choose one of two options – life in prison without parole or a death sentence. Their decision must be unanimous.
Torrez is now serving five life sentences plus 168 years for the string of attacks on women in Virginia, including abducting two at gunpoint, repeatedly raping one of them and leaving her for dead. She survived the attack and testified Monday.