Almost three years after finding her 6-year-old daughter raped and murdered in her bed, Stephanie Romeo recalled the heartbreaking moments that made her realize her daughter was gone.
Testifying on the first day of the trial against the man accused of the August 2018 murder, Romeo said she had no idea anything was wrong at first, according to the Albuquerque Journal. She climbed straight to bed at her suburban Albuquerque home after coming home late from work and slept next to her daughter, Ariana Jade Romeo, not knowing at the time that the future freshman’s body was was already cold.
The next morning, she said, she realized something was wrong.
“I started to say, ‘Crazy girl, what are you doing sleeping?’ I got home at 4 o’clock, you know. And I realized she was in the same position as when I got home, ”Romeo said Wednesday in New Mexico court. “And I knew right away. So I took the blanket off her and her legs were purple, and I knew she was dead.
The 6-year-old girl was already cold to the touch by then, wrapped tightly in a blanket, and blood was found near her buttocks, according to testimony. Her time of death was estimated to be around 10 p.m. the night before, hours before her mother went to bed with her.
She had suffered multiple injuries, including those consistent with sexual assault, and was found to have died of strangulation. Blood spatter was reportedly found on the bed, and a Playboy magazine by his side.
Leland Hust, a 24-year-old man who lived in the Rio Rancho house with Stephanie and Ariana Romeo, is accused of the girl’s death. Court documents show Hust told investigators he edited a movie for the girl and then fell asleep that night.
Hust, who was 21 at the time of the murder, denied having anything to do with Ariana’s death and told investigators he considered her a sister.
His lawyers portrayed him to the jury on Wednesday as a young man who had been tricked by the police and made to incriminate himself.
“This is a murky case based on insufficient investigation,” defense attorney Michael Rosenfield said in his opening statement.
Prosecutors say vaginal swab revealed DNA evidence proving Hust’s guilt, and they pointed out the case had been fully investigated for two months before Hust was even considered a suspect .
With the 6-year-old’s mother at work that night, Deputy District Attorney Jannette Mondragón said: Hust “had an opportunity that night, and he took it.”
But Rosenfield told jurors investigators did an issue on Hust, who he described as “vulnerable” during a two-hour interview with police two months after Ariana was found murdered.
Hust only started making incriminating statements after investigators played mind games with him, Rosenfield said, exaggerating the amount and significance of DNA evidence they believed tied the youngster to 21 years of crime.
Hust was “made to believe that his DNA was found in sufficient quantity to convict him,” Rosenfield said, arguing that the amount of DNA found in the vaginal swab could be easily explained by the fact that Hust and the girl were alive. in the same house. and using the same furniture.
Several other people lived in the house where the 6-year-old was killed, and Rosenfield said on Wednesday that the defense would raise questions about whether police overlooked other suspects in the case. He said a DNA expert would take the floor to testify about DNA found on another man’s swab.
Before charges were laid against Hust in October 2018, allegations of sexual abuse surfaced against another man who had lived in the house with the Romeos, Winston Scates Sr. The 63-year-old reportedly admitted to investigators that ‘he had assaulted two minor parents. years earlier, although he was ultimately charged only with one count of criminal sexual contact with a minor.
The trial against Hust is expected to last around 10 days.
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