A young mother drowns while seemingly trying to rescue her 2-year-old daughter from a swimming pool at a commune. The little girl’s father is later crushed to death by a car when a jack slips.
Then the orphan’s legal guardian inexplicably swerves her SUV into an oncoming dump truck and is instantly killed. And two of these deaths were allegedly prophesized by the commune’s leader, a so-called seer.
Were these random accidents? Or was something more sinister shadowing those living at a central Kansas compound called Angel’s Landing?
Today, a judge must decide whether prosecutors presented enough evidence during two days of testimony last week to justify a trial against commune leader Daniel U. Perez.
He is charged with premeditated, first-degree murder in the 2003 death of Patricia Hughes, the 26-year-old mother whose death at Valley Center compound near Wichita was initially thought to have been an accidental drowning. Closing arguments at the preliminary hearing are expected to be followed by a formal arraignment and pleas.
The 52-year-old defendant — who for years went by the name of Lou Castro — also faces more than 30 counts, including lying on life insurance applications, rape, sodomy, criminal threat, making false statements on vehicle credit applications and sexual exploitation of a child.
Perez has not been charged in the other deaths. Sedgwick County Capt. Greg Pollock has said investigators reviewed all associated deaths, but filed charges in the only death that occurred in their jurisdiction.
Last week’s testimony showed commune members took out hefty life insurance policies on themselves and named other group members as beneficiaries. Everyone in the group lived off the payouts when one of them died. A retired insurance salesman testified Perez always directed the amounts and beneficiaries for the policies, but he is not named in any of them.
Hughes had been the beneficiary on a $700,000 life insurance policy taken out by group member Mona Griffith, who was killed in a 2001 plane crash near Norris, S.D., along with her boyfriend and 12-year-old daughter. Hughes later took out a $2 million policy on herself, naming other group members as beneficiaries.
Investigators initially thought Hughes’ death was an accidental drowning — despite a coroner’s finding showing she also had three blunt-force injuries to the head — based on the story told by a 12-year-old girl. The girl said Hughes hit her head when she slipped while trying to reach the toddler, who had fallen into the pool.
But in shocking testimony, the now-grown woman told the court that she had helped Perez stage the drowning and told authorities the false story Perez had concocted. She also testified that Hughes willingly went to the pool knowing she would die, kissing her daughter goodbye and assuring the older child that she would come back from the dead.
The woman also told the court that she was repeatedly sexually abused by Perez for years, starting when she was 10. The Associated Press is not naming her because she is an alleged rape victim.
The woman also testified that Perez had foretold the 2008 death of Jennifer Hutson before she was killed in a collision with a dump truck in a neighboring county. Hutson’s husband, David Quiring, choked up on the stand when he implied his wife had possibly committed suicide.
Perez was convicted in 1997 of child sex charges in Texas but fled before sentencing and assumed a false identity.
It’s unclear when his group formed. They first lived in South Dakota, then moved together to Missouri, Kansas and Tennessee before authorities caught up with him in 2010 and convicted him on federal identity theft charges.