Even before she disappeared, there were signs that something was troubling 16-year-old Maritza Yepez.
When she didn’t return home from an outing to the movies in August, relatives fretted that she had run away. No one realized just how serious her problems had become until a Norcross man who was walking his dog stumbled upon her badly decomposed remains in a wooded area Dec. 6.
Maritza’s death was ruled an act of homicidal violence, but investigators have not released the cause of death.
“They have interviewed every known associate to the victim,” said a Gwinnett County police spokesman, Cpl. David Schiralli. “We’re still actively investigating it, following up on some leads. We have no list of suspects at this time.”
Photographs of Maritza show a beautiful teenager with a winning smile. Family members said she was a sweet girl with a fiercely independent streak. She was open at home and school about being a lesbian, according to her aunt, Alma Olvera, and a 17-year-old friend, George Reyes.
“She is one of those girls who will say what she means,” Olvera said. “Really independent.”
But Maritza’s grin masked bouts of depression and loneliness. Born in Texas and raised in Georgia, Maritza chose to remain behind two years ago when her mother and four siblings returned to Mexico.
Olvera, 39, and her husband agreed to raise their niece along with their own four children, who range in age from 4 to 17. Maritza was determined to finish high school at Berkmar, Olvera said.
Reyes, a classmate, said Maritza experimented with drugs last year and dropped out during the spring semester. But over the summer she vowed to turn her life around. She re-enrolled in school and was attending classes regularly, Reyes said.
Nothing seemed amiss on Aug. 23 when Maritza texted her aunt to ask permission to go to the movies with a friend. But the teenager never returned home. Olvera said Maritza had left home before, but she usually would answer her phone and return a few days later.
This time was different.
Messages left on Maritza’s cellphone by both Olvera and her mother in Mexico went unanswered. Maritza also left behind her purse, her ID, her makeup and nearly all her possessions. Olvera filed a missing person report and hoped her niece would turn up soon.
Her concerns mounted when, while looking through Maritza’s things one day, Olvera stumbled upon something chilling. It was a memory card containing some strange photographs that Maritza had taken of herself, as if to document some unknown offense. The photographs depicted Maritza’s arms and legs, mottled with bruises.
“I don’t know how, but she took those pictures of herself,” Olvera said. “I didn’t know about the bruises.”
In November, Olvera and her family moved from Lawrenceville to Alpharetta. But they held out hope of Maritza’s return.
They boxed up the teenager’s belongings and kept them stored at the new apartment.
Then on Dec. 17 Olvera saw a television news report about the discovery of unidentified female remains in Norcross. Along with the body, police said they found several articles of clothing — some of it muddy, tattered and bloodstained.
“When I saw that, my heart went crazy,” Olvera said. “I had a feeling that was my niece.”
A comparison of dental records confirmed the family’s worst fears.
Reyes said Maritza would want her loved ones to move on and make the best of things.
But it’s difficult to shrug off such a senseless death.
“It just saddens me that someone could actually be that cruel and heartless to someone,” Reyes said.
Maritza’s birthday, which she shared with an uncle, was Dec. 28. The family used to celebrate with a special dinner and two birthday cakes. This year, though, relatives were so upset that “we didn’t feel like doing or saying anything,” Olvera said.
Maritza would have been 17.
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com