Witness says Kansas commune leader foretold death

AP News
Posted: May 30, 2012 8:36 PM
Witness says Kansas commune leader foretold death

WICHITA, Kan. _ The leader and so-called seer of a central Kansas commune predicted Patricia Hughes' death. Weeks later, the young mother kissed her 2-year-old daughter goodbye and reassured another child that she would come back from the dead, a witness testified Wednesday.

The young woman, who was 12 years old at the time of Hughes' death in 2003, took the stand at the preliminary hearing for Daniel U. Perez, 52. Perez is charged with first-degree premeditated murder. The Associated Press is not identifying the woman because she is an alleged rape victim.

Perez _ who in the past used the false name Lou Castro _ 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. Wednesday was the last day for witness testimony for the hearing, and closing arguments are set for June 7.

Police first thought Hughes, 26, drowned while trying to rescue her daughter from swimming a pool at the commune's complex in Valley Center, a suburb of Wichita.

But the young woman came forward last year, telling a Sedgwick County sheriff's detective a different version of what happened that day.

"I decided that I wasn't as scared anymore," she testified.

She told the court that she walked to the pool with Perez, Hughes and Hughes' 2-year-old daughter, Nicole. The adults unfurled the pool vacuum, so that Hughes' death would look accidental. The woman said Hughes told her, "I will be back, don't worry about me. Just take care of Nicole."

Hughes and Perez then told the woman to wait with the toddler inside a nearby shop. She recalled hearing a splash and a scream.

When Perez came inside, his forearms were wet and he was out of breath.

"He seemed kind of flustered, kind of sad," she testified.

Perez had told her to wait 20 minutes before going into the pool with the toddler, and she asked why she needed to get into the pool. She said Perez told her it was so their clothes would be wet.

Hughes was floating face-down in the shallow end, the woman testified, and despite the toddler's cries, she jumped in, holding Hughes' daughter.

She said she later called 911, telling authorities what Perez had instructed her to provide: Hughes fell and hit her head while trying to rescue her daughter, who had fallen into the pool.

Over time, Perez assured her the false story was actually what happened, the woman said in court, telling her that her memory was different because he controlled time and space and had therefore put her in a different place to protect her.

The woman also testified Wednesday that she was repeatedly sexually abused by Perez for years, starting when she was 10.

"He also was very dominating and he _ as well as his three personalities _ were scary," she said. "He basically indicated that he could know things and do things without actually doing them, like kill people."

During cross-examination, defense attorney Alice Osburn tried to cast doubt on the young woman's story, saying she never told anyone about the sexual abuse or threats, even after Perez had gone to jail on federal identity theft charges.

Hughes' death is not the only one within the commune. A 2001 plane crash in South Dakota killed a group member, her 12-year-old daughter and her boyfriend. Hughes' husband was killed in 2006 when a car jack failed and he was crushed in South Dakota. And a 2008 traffic accident killed another group member who had legal custody of Hughes' orphaned daughter.

On Wednesday, the woman and other witnesses portrayed Perez as a domineering leader who kept a tight rein on his young mostly female followers.

Kara Lemier told the court that Perez filled a void during a difficult time in her life, saying that she felt she could trust him because he'd accurately recounted a prayer she made as a child to God.

"I had nothing else to trust I had nothing else at the time," she testified.

She described Perez as charismatic, until he was drunk. At that point, she said, he became unrecognizable.

"His favorite threat to all of us was I am gonna make your worse nightmare come true," Lemier said. "That always hit home to each and every one of us in different ways."

She told the court she still believed he had the capability to hurt her and that she is still scared of him.