Crime & Courts

Daniel Perez will face trial in 2003 death at Valley Center compound

Daniel U. Perez talks with his attorney Alice  Osburn during his preliminary hearing in Sedgwick County District Court in Wichita, Kan., Thursday June 7, 2012. Perez, 52, has been charged with premeditated first-degree murder in the death of Patricia Hughes, 26. Prosecutors and defense gave their final arguments  to justify a murder trial for the commune leader accused of killing Hughes, whose 2003 death was initially believed to be an accidental drowning. Judge Clark Owens ruled there is enough evidence to send Perez to trial on a charge of first-degree murder in the 2003 death of a woman living on what has been described as a compound led by Perez.
Daniel U. Perez talks with his attorney Alice Osburn during his preliminary hearing in Sedgwick County District Court in Wichita, Kan., Thursday June 7, 2012. Perez, 52, has been charged with premeditated first-degree murder in the death of Patricia Hughes, 26. Prosecutors and defense gave their final arguments to justify a murder trial for the commune leader accused of killing Hughes, whose 2003 death was initially believed to be an accidental drowning. Judge Clark Owens ruled there is enough evidence to send Perez to trial on a charge of first-degree murder in the 2003 death of a woman living on what has been described as a compound led by Perez. The Wichita Eagle

Prosecutor Marc Bennett said there’s no way that Patricia Hughes drowned herself in a pool at a Valley Center compound.

Defense attorney Alice Osburn suggested that maybe the 2003 death was a suicide.

After the two attorneys made closing arguments this afternoon in a preliminary hearing for defendant Daniel Perez, Judge Clark Owens ruled there was enough evidence to send Perez to a July 30 trial on a charge of first-degree premeditated murder in the death of Hughes, a 26-year-old mother.

Owens also found that prosecutors showed enough evidence at a hearing last week to try Perez on more than 30 other charges including rape, sodomy, sexual exploitation of a child, aggravated assault, criminal threat and directing that false information be put on life insurance and car credit applications.

The court entered a not-guilty plea for Perez, a 52-year-old who had used the name Lou Castro and had lived in the biggest, nicest house at a 20-acre compound on North Oliver. He had become a fugitive after being convicted of child sex crimes in Texas around 1997. According to witnesses, Castro worked no job and led a communal “family” who traveled from state to state and lived off large life insurance payouts from “family” members’ deaths. After Hughes died in 2003, in what was originally thought to be an accidental drowning, her life insurance payout was $2 million.

Perez, a short man with dark, graying hair extending halfway down his back, came into court Thursday afternoon in handcuffs and shackles and wearing an orange jail jumpsuit and what appeared to be a new pair of eyeglasses. He seemed expressionless as he listened to the legal arguments.

Bennett, a deputy district attorney, said in his closing argument, “I don’t know how someone drowns themselves.” He said testimony showed that Perez, who had been described as “a seer” by some members of the family, foretold of Hughes’ death a week before.

Before Hughes died, he arranged for a 12-year-old girl to call 911 and say that Hughes had slipped and hit her head while trying to rescue her 2-year-old daughter from the pool, on the compound on North Oliver, according to testimony.

Bennett noted there had been testimony that Perez told the 12-year-old to wait with the 2-year-old in a room without a view of the pool, that the girl heard a splash and a scream, and that Perez came back breathing hard and with his arms wet. He told her to wait to call 911 to give him time to get to an auto dealership, the witness, who is now 20, testified last week.

The logical conclusion is that Perez held Hughes under water, Bennett said.

As far as the sex-crimes charges, Bennett said, the testimony showed that a girl and young women at the compound were subjected to “constant violence” and threats by Perez, including that he would harm their relatives if they didn’t comply with his forced sex.

“You don’t say no to Lou Castro” is what the girl and young women believed, Bennett said.

Perez also directed which “family” members took out life insurance and who the beneficiaries were, Bennett said.

Perez directed compound members to put false information on auto credit applications because if the truth had been told, “no one would have sold them a car, no one would have had anything to do with these people,” Bennett said.

Alice Osburn, one of the two defense attorneys, told the judge that an autopsy initially found that Hughes had died of an accidental drowning. Osburn said Hughes’ head injuries could be explained by EMS personnel bumping her head while trying to remove her from the pool.

Other evidence showed that Perez has an alibi, that he was at an auto dealership when he got news of the drowning, and that the 12-year-old girl didn’t see what happened, Osburn said.

She referred to testimony that another “family” member might have committed suicide, suggesting that Hughes also might have killed herself.

As for the rape and sodomy charges, Osburn said, the members making the allegations “were free to go” from the property and had many chances to tell others what they now allege. She said there was no evidence of bruising injuries.

She said that three witnesses gave three differing accounts of how Perez allegedly threatened them with a gun and fired it.

Her fellow defense attorney, Steve Osburn, said the state had “come up short” of its burden to show that Perez had committed financial crimes. Steve Osburn argued that others, not Perez, put down false information and that Perez didn’t force them or tell them to do it. “They just did it,” Steve Osburn said. He said one of the people accusing Perez was the beneficiary of the $2 million life insurance payout from Hughes’ death.

Owens, the judge, said he was limiting his comments on the evidence because he didn’t want something he would say to be reported in the media and to cause potential jurors to have a prejudice.

Owens noted that in a preliminary hearing, the evidence must be viewed in a light most favorable to the prosecution.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle

  Comments