WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — When Patricia Hughes drowned in June 2003, police initially believed a neighbor girl who told them the young mother had been trying to rescue her 2-year-old daughter from a residential pool when she accidentally drowned.
But a prosecutor told a judge Tuesday that her death was actually premeditated first-degree murder perpetrated by Daniel U. Perez, 52, and that the girl now will testify that Perez directed her to tell “a false story to police” about how Hughes drowned in the pool.
The comments from prosecutor Kim Parker came as the preliminary hearing for Perez got under way with prosecutors portraying with their witnesses a domineering leader who got group members and friends alike to do his bidding, sometimes with threats of violence.
Prosecutors must show a judge enough evidence to justify a trial on murder and other charges during a preliminary hearing that is expected to last two to three days.
Perez was known for years as Lou Castro, a false identity he assumed after fleeing Texas following his conviction on child sex charges. In addition to the murder charge, he now also faces multiple counts of lying on life insurance applications, rape, sodomy, criminal threat, making false statements on auto credit applications and sexual exploitation of a child.
Tuesday’s proceeding offered the first public glimpse into the state’s case against the leader of a group whose members are accused of living lavishly off millions of dollars in life insurance payouts from dead commune members.
Retired insurance salesman Bill Hatton testified that he wrote five policies for group members, including a $2 million one on Hughes. Perez directed the amounts and beneficiaries of all the policies, even though he was not listed on them, Hatton said.
The insurance salesman said Perez told him that the group members had formed a family bond.
Hughes’ parents have alleged in court documents that the group is linked to other deaths, including Hughes’ husband and another group member who had gotten legal guardianship of Hughes’ orphaned daughter.
On Tuesday, prosecutors put on the stand several witnesses who recounted the control Perez exercised over others.
David Quiring, who married one of the women in the commune, testified he and his wife were the only ones in the group with real jobs. His wife convinced him to co-sign for a $50,000 equity loan on their house, most of the money which then went to the group, and had him co-sign on numerous car loans for other group members.
Quiring said he stayed on the “outside edge of things” and mostly kept to himself while his wife spent more time with the group than she did with him.
“It was never about what her and I needed, it was about what they needed,” Quiring said.
A friend of the group, Phillip Young, also testified he co-signed for several car loans for group members.
Car salesman Keith Williams took the stand to say commune members bought between 20-35 vehicles from the dealership, with Perez picking them out and designating whose names would be on the title. Perez never signed a document or had one titled in his own name.
Also taking the stand was a young woman who lived in a Kansas commune as a teenager and testified that the group’s leader sexually abused her and threatened to kill her and her parents if she did not do as he told her.
The woman who testified about being sexually assaulted said Perez once pointed a gun at her and fired two shots into a wall. She said he then ordered her and her younger sister to undress. The sexual attacks continued over several years.
The Associated Press is not naming the woman because of a policy against identifying possible victims of sexual assault.
She also testified that Perez ordered her to secretly videotape as she was undressing an 8-year-old girl who had come to the compound to go swimming, posing her in sexually provocative ways. That testimony relates to charges of sexual exploitation of a child in a related case.
On the day Hughes died, Perez and several people had just left the compound and gone to a car dealership to buy a car when Perez got a phone call five minutes after they arrived telling him of an emergency back home, she testified.