Seven may face trial in rape, death of girl, 16

Courtney Rice was 16 years old. She had spent much of her life going in and out of group homes. She was the mother of a 1-year-old girl.

One night in June, Rice was raped and murdered, prosecutors say. She was found stuffed in a sleeping bag with her hands and feet bound and a plastic bag around her head. Her body was wrapped in electrical cords.

Now five men and two women — ages 19 to 28 — may face trial in the Fresno girl's death. Six of the defendants are charged with murder and five of them, including one of the women, are charged with rape.

Police say the defendants are all gang members or gang associates.

Fresno police detective Todd Fraizer, who testified Monday at the group's preliminary hearing in Fresno County Superior Court, was one of the first to see Rice's dead body. Her feet were sticking out of a blue sleeping bag resting in the bed of a Ford F-150 pickup, he said.

Police say the truck was found June 11 in a rural area in southwest Fresno. It was later towed to a storage yard in east-central Fresno where employees of the storage facility discovered the body the next day.

In interviews with the brother of defendant Joseph Lopez, Fraizer said he learned that Lopez, 24, often had Rice over to his Fresno apartment and would refer to her as "Baby."

Fraizer said the brother told him Lopez was worried that Rice knew of his criminal background and might turn him in, so Lopez decided he and a friend, Michelle Molina, 27, had to "take her out."

Police say Rice was lured to an apartment June 9, three days before her body was discovered.

Fraizer said he later inspected Molina's apartment.

"Things appeared to be in disarray and out of place," he said in court.

Fraizer said he found a bleached stain on the carpet and an empty box that held plastic bags similar to the one found around Rice's head. He said he also found evidence indicating Molina was part of the Eastside Bulldogs gang.

The half-hour of testimony Monday raised more questions than answers, though more information about the case will likely come out later this week as the hearing continues.

Even though seven people are facing charges, it's unclear so far how anyone other than Lopez and Molina were allegedly involved in Rice's death. It is also unknown what penalties the defendants could face if convicted of the charges.

Police have refused to say how Rice died. Fraizer's testimony thus far has not shed light on that question.

Prosecutor Chris Gularte declined to comment Monday.