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Mystery surrounds Ceres mom's death
Erika Lopez of Ceres reported being stalked by man leading up to death
Erika Lopez
Erika Lopez, 39, of Ceres, was found dead Saturday afternoon in the parking lot of St. Stanislaus Catholic Church. She had been reported missing to Ceres Police on Friday evening.

Friends and supporters of Erika Lopez – the 39-year-old Ceres mother reported missing Friday and found dead in her car Saturday afternoon in a Modesto church parking lot – lodged sharp criticism about how Ceres Police responded to numerous reports about a man stalking her the week leading to her death.

Many of those attending Monday’s Ceres City Council meeting accused Ceres Police of being negligent in looking into Lopez’s claims and her disappearance late Friday. Their complaints reached the ears of numerous sergeants and Police Chief Rick Collins who attended the meeting in anticipation of the turnout.

The Modesto Police Department is investigating Lopez’s death and has not said how she died. As is normally the case, police are not releasing information because it could compromise the investigation.

A number of citizens wanted Ceres Police Department to explain what it did or didn’t do to investigate claims that the alleged stalker threatened and tried to break into Lopez’s home, which she shares with her husband and two teenage children. 

Erika Lopez was reported missing to Ceres Police Friday evening. Her 17-year-old daughter, Yaresli Lopez, made posts on social media about the disappearance and shared her suspicions that she had been abducted by a man who was allegedly stalking and threatening her mother.

Lopez’s body was found Saturday afternoon inside of her Honda idling in the parking lot of St. Stanislaus Catholic Church on Maze Boulevard in Modesto. Police stopped short of declaring it a homicide. A press release noted that detectives with the Violent Crimes Unit evaluated the circumstances of the death and are conducting a “death investigation.” The release also noted that “There is currently no one wanted or being sought by detectives as part of this investigation. This is an active investigation pending the results of the autopsy, no other information will be released at this time.”

On Sunday Modesto Police said detectives were not seeking any suspects relating to Lopez’s death. An autopsy was being performed to determine the exact cause of death.

Lopez was on her way home Friday evening from San Jose where she worked at a hospital and called her daughter at 7:46 p.m. to report that she would be home in about a half-hour. When she hadn’t returned two hours later Lopez’s daughter and husband Jerry began searching the route she would have taken along I-5.

The family also searched the Herndon Road area near Ceres High School because her cell phone had pinged there Friday evening. The next day Lopez’s boss assisted in searching for Lopez and at approximately 3 p.m. passed by St. Stanislaus Catholic Church when he spotted Lopez’s black Honda. He was unable to see inside the car due to dark window tinting and called 911. Modesto Police arrived and located Lopez inside and unresponsive.

Erika’s family had alerted Ceres Police on Tuesday, Sept. 20 that she had been harassed and stalked by a former Modesto High School classmate identified in social media as Salvador Vasquez, claiming that he had attempted to break into the home after parking a block away “and threatening” her. The posting accused Ceres Police of not taking action to apprehend Vasquez and not taking reports of her Friday disappearance seriously.

On a GoFundMe account set up for burial expenses by Yeileen Espinoza, a friend of Erika Lopez, wrote: “The Lopez family notified CPD with urgency fearing that Erika could be in danger, but were not granted the support they wished. On September 24th the Lopez family took it upon themselves to search for her where Erika’s phone was last at and sadly her vehicle was found at St. Stanislaus Catholic Church in Modesto, CA where her body was also found. The family is mourning the loss of a loved one that they should not have to had the Ceres Police Department stepped up to help this family in their time of need.”

The GoFundMe site had generated $12,359 as of Tuesday morning.

At Monday’s council meeting, Maria Camarena asked if Chief Collins and Officer Brian Chandler would sit down and speak to the victim’s family about how officers responded to reports of her being missing following the stalking reports.

“We just feel that we were not taken as serious as we should have been,” said Camarena. “We feel we were ignored. There could have been a better outcome if they would have taken us more serious than they did.”

Camarena also said police “need to address this because I don’t want another call like this to be taken just like another missing person that is going to be found in a few hours or come home in a few hours because that’s not what happened here.”

An empathetic Mayor Javier Lopez expressed that the council and city cares but also noted that the case was being investigated by both police agencies.

Chief Collins said he would be happy to meet with the family “when the investigation concludes. Right now that would not be the appropriate time to do that but my door is open to you when the time is correct.” He said meeting now would “impede the investigation.” Collins then said he could contact Modesto Police “to see if they would be okay with me meeting with you.”

Nick Maynard approached the dais and clarified that the family wanted a meeting with Collins about how the calls of stalking were handled, not the death investigation by Modesto.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with the investigation so you should be able to have a meeting with them about that, I would think,” said Maynard. Collins held to his feeling that talking might interfere with the Modesto investigation.

Ceres Police Chief Collins did not respond to the Courier’s inquiries made on Monday into the stalking calls.