June 9 – LOS LUNAS – Stephanie Romeo told a jury on Wednesday that she came home from a long night at work in 2018 and got into bed next to her 6-year-old daughter without realizing the girl had been raped and strangled to death a few. hours earlier.
Later that morning, Romeo told jurors, she tried to wake her daughter, Ariana “Jade” Romeo, and found the girl’s largely naked and bloody body wrapped tightly in a sheet.
Romeo told jurors she started screaming when she realized her daughter was dead. She broke down in tears on several occasions when describing the state of her daughter’s body during testimony Wednesday at the trial of Leland Hust, 24, accused of killing Ariana in August 2018.
Hust is charged with intentional child abuse resulting in the death and rape of a child under 13, two first degree felonies. He faces another count of first degree murder in the commission of a felony. If convicted of either charge, Hust could face a life sentence.
Hust’s attorney told jurors on Wednesday that Rio Rancho police botched the investigation and subsequently coerced Hust into making incriminating statements by exaggerating the strength of the DNA evidence involving Hust.
“This is a murky case based on insufficient investigation,” Hust’s attorney Michael Rosenfield said in his opening statement. The botched police work at the time destroyed evidence at the scene that could have identified the killer, he argued.
But Deputy District Attorney Jannette Mondragón told jurors police investigated the murder for two months before arresting Hust, dismissing any claims that there had been a rush in the case.
She also noted in her introduction that DNA evidence is crucial in proving Hust’s guilt. Hust was the only family member who could not be eliminated as the source of DNA from a vaginal swab taken from the victim, Mondragón said.
She also said Hust was the last person to see Ariana alive, a claim disputed by Rosenfield. Ariana, her mother, and Hust shared a house with several others in Rio Rancho.
Hust was 21 when he was charged.
The presiding judge of the 13th Judicial District, George P. Eichwald, estimated the trial would last 7-10 days. The jury selection took place Monday and Tuesday.
Earlier this year, Eichwald ordered a change of seat at the Valencia County Courthouse in Los Lunas due to widespread media coverage of the case.
Rosenfield argued in his introduction that Rio Rancho investigators gave Hust false information about the amount and location of the DNA evidence, which caused the young man to question his own innocence.
The two-hour interview, which took place two months after Ariana’s death, quickly turned from “fine words to bad words,” he told jurors. “He was vulnerable,” he said of Hust. He was “made to believe that his DNA was found in sufficient quantity to condemn him”.
Until then, he said, Hust had categorically asserted during a two-hour interrogation that he loved Ariana, considered her a sister and would never have harmed her.
Traces of Hust’s DNA found on the swab could be explained by the transfer of genetic material from objects Hust and the girl shared in the house, Rosenfield said.
“It could explain how Mr. Hust’s DNA ended up on that vaginal swab,” he said.
Rosenfield said an expert witness will also testify that DNA from a second man was found on the swab.
Mondragón said Hust had the perfect opportunity to attack Ariana because her mother was at work.
Hust “had an opportunity that night, and he took it,” she said.
Prosecutors played portions of audio recordings of phone calls Hust made from the Metropolitan Detention Center to Romeo, Ariana’s mother, for the jury.
Romeo admitted, when questioned by Hust’s attorney, that she wanted Hust to admit killing Ariana so that she could provide the tapes to the police.
In one recording, Hust and Romeo discussed the possibility that another family member killed the girl. Asked by Hust’s lawyer about the conversation, Romeo said she “accepted what he said” in an effort to get as much information as possible.
In one recording, Romeo told Hust that she was “horrible” without Ariana. “I literally can’t function without it,” she said.
Hust replied that Ariana was also missing.