Former Zion man pleads not guilty to 2005 murders
A former Zion resident accused of the notorious 2005 murder of two little girls in a Zion park pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder in Lake County court Thursday.
Jorge Avila-Torrez, 25, stared stoically ahead while flanked by two jail guards as Judge Daniel Shanes explained he was charged with 18 varying counts of first-degree murder for killing 8-year-old Laura Hobbs and 9-year-old Krystal Tobias.
Assistant State's Attorney Stephen Scheller said the charges normally would result in a life sentence, but because Torrez was 16 at the time of the murders, he can be sentenced a maximum of 100 years in prison if convicted.
Torrez was shackled at the wrists and ankles when defense attorney LaTonya Burton entered the not guilty plea.
Burton, Scheller and Assistant State's Attorney Ari Fisz declined to comment after the hearing.
Shanes altered Torrez's bond during the hearing, ordering he be held without bond rather than the $5 million set previously. Torrez's trial is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 26.
The case made national headlines and generated plenty of controversy. The girls had told family members they were riding to a nearby park to play on Mother's Day but never returned home. Laura's father, Jerry Hobbs, and her grandfather found the bodies in the park the next morning.
Police immediately zeroed in on Jerry Hobbs as the suspect, and he confessed after being interrogated for nearly 24 hours. He spent five years in Lake County jail.
However, DNA evidence recovered in 2007 pointed to someone else. Hobbs, who was released from jail more than two years later, sued the county for wrongful imprisonment.
While Hobbs was incarcerated, Torrez was accused of killing a Navy sailor at a barracks in 2009, and stalking attacks on three women in northern Virginia in 2010, including one who was raped, choked and left for dead.
The former U.S. Marine was captured and convicted in the attacks on the three women and was sentenced to five life sentences plus 168 years.
DNA evidence collected from Torrez after the 2010 arrest linked him to the murder of U.S. Navy Petty Officer Amanda Snell, 20, and to the Zion slayings, authorities said.
After Torrez was convicted this year and sentenced to death for killing Snell, he was sent to Lake County to stand trial in the Zion murders. He arrived in Lake County last week, prosecutors said.
Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim said previously he would try Torrez after the Virginia death sentence "in order to bring closure to the case."
Torrez lived in the neighborhood and was a friend of Tobias' older brother at the time of the murders.
Hobbs was one of four Lake County cases overturned in recent years due to DNA evidence.
•Juan Rivera spent 20 years in prison after being convicted three times for killing Holly Staker of Waukegan.
•James Edwards in the 1994 slaying of a Waukegan business owner. He remains in prison on a separate conviction. Hezekiah Whitfield, 44, was sentenced to life in prison in August for the killing.
•Bennie Starks spent 20 years in prison for a 1986 sexual assault and aggravated battery of a 69-year-old woman in Waukegan.
A fifth potential case is in court. Marvin Williford, 43, is serving an 80-year prison sentence after a 2004 conviction in the murder of Delwin Foxworth in North Chicago. Defense attorneys claim DNA evidence does not match Williford. Testing is being done on other recovered items before the case moves forward.
Torrez is due back in court Dec. 9.
DNA evidence ignoredThe murder of 9-year-old Laura Hobbs of Zion is one of several in which former Lake County State's Attorney Michael Waller pursued conviction not supported by DNA evidence.
• The Illinois Appellate Court in 2011 threw out Juan Rivera's third conviction for the 1992 rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker of Waukegan. DNA evidence on Staker's body did not match Rivera. Rivera spent 20 years in prison, beginning when he was 19.
• Jerry Hobbs spent five years in jail awaiting trial for the murders of his daughter and another little girl before DNA taken from his daughter's body was matched to a man in custody in another state for other crimes.
• In May 2012, James Edwards was cleared of the 1994 slaying of a Waukegan business owner based on DNA evidence. He remains in prison on a separate conviction.
• The last remaining charge was dropped in 2013 against Bennie Starks of Zion, who spent 20 years in prison after he was convicted in 1986 of sexual assault and aggravated battery in a Waukegan case where DNA taken from the 69-year-old victim was found to not match him.