Nearly 12 years after her body was found floating in a pool on a rural Valley Center compound called Angel’s Landing, Patricia Hughes’ death remains a mystery.
Some say the 26-year-old mother accidentally slipped and hit her head, drowning in an attempt to rescue her 2-year-old daughter from the water.
Some suggest she committed suicide.
Still others, including the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office, think she was killed – her head held beneath the water until she quit breathing – for $2 million in life insurance money.
The question will come to the fore this week as Daniel U. Perez heads to trial in Sedgwick County Court on 37 criminal charges, including first-degree premeditated murder in Hughes’ death.
The charges against the 55-year-old Perez – which also include 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 – are associated with a communal lifestyle he led in Kansas with a group known as “the family.”
Perez has pleaded not guilty to the charges. Jury selection in the case is scheduled to begin Monday.
According to witnesses who testified at his preliminary hearing in June 2012, Perez lived on a 20-acre compound in the 9500 block on North Oliver, had no job and was the leader of a traveling entourage who lived off of life insurance benefits paid from the deaths of about a dozen others involved.
Perez directed the amounts and who received millions in payouts from the policies, according to testimony. But he never was himself listed as a beneficiary.
Perez, witnesses testified, had used the name Lou Castro. He was controlling and sometimes violent, they said, forcing girls and women to have sex against their will.
He had used false names and aliases since 1997, when he was convicted of child sex crimes in Texas but fled before sentencing, according to court documents.
After Hughes died on June 26, 2003, in the compound’s pool, the coroner ruled her death accidental. Her autopsy showed she suffered three blunt force injuries to her head.
Eight years later, a 20-year-old came forward with unsettling information: She said the young mother had been murdered.
Series of deaths
According to testimony from witnesses in June 2012, those surrounding Perez at the Angel’s Landing compound believed the 5-foot-6 man was “a seer” who could foretell the future. He claimed to be hundreds of years old, to have three different persona and to need sex from someone pure, like young girls, to survive.
He is charged with multiple counts of sex acts with minors.
For years, the deaths of people in Kansas and other states who were associated with Perez’s communal “family” had raised questions. Hughes, a wife and mother, was one of about a dozen, according to court documents.
Others included Hughes’ husband, who was crushed to death by a car in South Dakota after a jack slipped; their child’s guardian, who met her death when her SUV swerved in front of a dump truck in Butler County; and a woman killed along with her 12-year-old daughter and her boyfriend in a plane crash in South Dakota. (Hughes received $700,000 in life insurance money from the plane crash victim.)
Like the others, Hughes’ death seemed nothing more than a tragic, unintended turn of fate. The official story was that she slipped and hit her head while rushing down a pool step to rescue her 2-year-old daughter, who had fallen in while they and a neighbor girl cleaned the pool.
Apparently, she did not know how to swim.
But then a grown woman told a detective who approached her in 2011 that she helped stage the drowning. She was 12 at the time.
The woman, whom The Eagle is not naming because she alleges she is a victim of sexual assault, testified in June 2012 that Perez foretold Hughes’ death about a week before it happened and enlisted her help. She said Hughes knew she would die on June 26, 2003, and kissed her daughter and offered reassurance that she would return after “crossing over” before she walked to the pool.
The woman in her testimony said Perez had ordered her to wait in a shop by the pool with Hughes’ 2-year-old daughter for 20 minutes, saying that he would retrieve her later and she would take the toddler and jump into the water. After some time, she heard splashing and thought she heard a scream, then Perez came in, the woman testified.
His forearms were wet but not his clothes, she said in 2012, and he seemed out of breath.
Hughes was in the shallow end of the pool when she took the toddler into the water, the woman testified.
As a girl, she told a 911 emergency operator that the 26-year-old mother had slipped and that she was able to rescue her daughter, but she couldn’t pull Hughes out of the pool.
Perez, she testified, had directed her to do so. He was at a car dealership when paramedics arrived.
Hughes’ death was reclassified as a homicide on Sept. 1, 2011. Perez was booked into Sedgwick County Jail about 4 1/2 months later; he remains there on $2.1 million bond.
In court in 2012, then-Deputy Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett argued that a person can’t drown himself or herself. Defense attorney Alice Osburn suggested that perhaps Hughes committed suicide.
District Judge Joseph Bribiesca is scheduled to preside over Perez’s trial. Bennett, now the district attorney, said Sunday the proceedings likely will last more than a week.