Guilty plea brings closure to notorious Lake County child killings

  • Krystal Tobias, 9, and Laura Hobbs, 8, were found dead on Mother's Day 2005 in a Zion park. More than 13 years later, a former Zion resident admitted Tuesday that he killed the girls.

    Krystal Tobias, 9, and Laura Hobbs, 8, were found dead on Mother's Day 2005 in a Zion park. More than 13 years later, a former Zion resident admitted Tuesday that he killed the girls. AP File Photo

  • Convicted killer Jorge Avila-Torrez, a Zion native and former U.S. Marine, pleaded guilty Tuesday to killing two girls in a Zion park in 2005.

    Convicted killer Jorge Avila-Torrez, a Zion native and former U.S. Marine, pleaded guilty Tuesday to killing two girls in a Zion park in 2005. AP File Photo

  • A memorial was put up at the entrance of Beulah Park in Zion after 9-year-old Krystal Tobias and 8-year-old Laura Hobbs were found murdered there in May 2005.

      A memorial was put up at the entrance of Beulah Park in Zion after 9-year-old Krystal Tobias and 8-year-old Laura Hobbs were found murdered there in May 2005. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer, 2005

 
 
Updated 9/18/2018 4:39 PM

With a judge calling the crimes "cruel, coldblooded and devoid of mercy," one of Lake County's most high-profile and notorious murder cases concluded Tuesday when Jorge Avila-Torrez pleaded guilty to the Mother's Day 2005 slaying and rape of two young girls in Zion.

Avila-Torrez, 30, was sentenced to 100 years in prison under a plea deal in which he admitted to the murders of 8-year-old Laura Hobbs and 9-year-old Krystal Tobias. The girls were found stabbed to death in the Beulah Park Forest Preserve in Zion in May 2005.

 

"Within each of us, there is a divine spark of goodness. But not for you," Judge Daniel Shanes told Avila-Torrez in court Tuesday. "If that spark is there, it is buried so deep it is unattainable for you."

The former U.S. Marine already is awaiting a death sentence and serving five life sentences plus 168 years for convictions stemming from the 2009 slaying of a U.S. Navy sailor and stalking attacks on three women in northern Virginia in 2010, including one in which the victim was raped, choked and left for dead.

"We're glad it's over with," said Marina Tobias, Krystal's mother, outside the courtroom Tuesday. "This way, we're sure he will never do anything again."

In exchange for pleading guilty, Avila-Torrez is expected to be transferred to a federal penitentiary, most likely in Terre Haute, Indiana, said defense attorney Jed Stone. Avila-Torrez wanted a transfer from Red Onion State Prison in Virginia, Stone said.

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Convicted killer Jorge Avila-Torrez, a Zion native and former U.S. Marine, pleaded guilty Tuesday to killing two girls in a Zion park in 2005.
Convicted killer Jorge Avila-Torrez, a Zion native and former U.S. Marine, pleaded guilty Tuesday to killing two girls in a Zion park in 2005. - AP File Photo

Avila-Torrez, sporting a full beard and blue jail outfit, did not speak in court aside from clear "yes" or "no" answers when speaking with Shanes. He never acknowledged the Tobias family or his own relatives in the courtroom.

Shanes called Avila-Torrez a "serial killer of the highest degree" when accepting the negotiated plea. adding that he "earned every day" of his prison sentence.

But Stone said the spark Shanes referred to when approving the plea deal still exists within his client.

"There is a spark of humanity in that young man," Stone said. "He will spend the rest of his life in prison, but he's a human and deserves to be treated like a human."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Jerry Hobbs spent five years in jail awaiting trial for the murder of his daughter and her friend before DNA evidence exonerated him. Another man pleaded guilty to the slayings Tuesday.
Jerry Hobbs spent five years in jail awaiting trial for the murder of his daughter and her friend before DNA evidence exonerated him. Another man pleaded guilty to the slayings Tuesday. - Daily Herald File Photo, 2010

The girls' slaying made national headlines when police initially zeroed in on Laura's father, Jerry Hobbs, after he found the girls' bodies. He later confessed to the killings after nearly 24 hours of interrogation.

However, after spending nearly five years in the Lake County jail awaiting trial, Hobbs was exonerated by DNA evidence. He was released and sued Lake County for wrongful imprisonment.

The same DNA evidence eventually linked Avila-Torrez to the killings, Assistant Lake County State's Attorney Stephen Scheller said.

DNA also helped federal prosecutors win a conviction of Avila-Torrez for the murder of Petty Officer Amanda Snell, 20, in a Navy barracks, authorities said. After he was sentenced to death for killing Snell, he was returned to Lake County to stand trial for the Zion murders.

"I'm glad to see justice was finally done in this case," Lake County State's Attorney Mike Nerheim said. "I hope this brings a small amount of closure to the families of the victim."

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