WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A self-proclaimed seer convinced young mothers to leave their families and join him in a communal lifestyle where they lived off the insurance payouts from its dead members, a prosecutor told jurors Wednesday.
Opening statements in the trial of Daniel U. Perez outlined the group's wanderings over a 15-year span that crossed several states and even Mexico, marked by sexual violence and the deaths of six people.
Perez, 55, is charged with first-degree premeditated murder in the 2003 drowning death of 26-year-old Patricia Hughes at Angels' Landing, the group's compound in the Wichita suburb of Valley Center. He also is charged with rape, sodomy, criminal threat, lying on life insurance applications, making false statements on credit applications and sexual exploitation of a child.
Deputy District Attorney Kim Parker told jurors Perez convinced young mothers that he could see the future. He claimed he was 100 years old and had survived because of sexual relations with young girls.
"These girls feared him and believed his stories about his age, his seer capabilities," Parker said. "Because when in fact he said to them, 'If I want somebody dead, they will be,' — in their observations that is exactly what happened."
Perez is charged only in Hughes' death, but prosecutors laid out a pattern of seemingly accidental deaths whenever the group — which lived a lavish communal lifestyle — was running low on funds. The dead members left large insurance policies naming others in the group as beneficiaries; Hughes had a $1.25 million policy.
Among the other deaths was a 2001 plane crash that killed a group member, her boyfriend and her 12-year-old daughter. Hughes' husband was killed in 2006 when a carjack failed and he was crushed. A 2008 traffic accident killed another group member who had legal custody of Hughes' orphaned daughter.
Defense attorney Alice Osburn told jurors Perez did not kill Hughes and that the other deaths of commune members were coincidental and thoroughly investigated. She noted the group shared as a family the $4 million in insurance payments, and Perez did "not get a dime" as beneficiary.
She portrayed the commune as an "open home" where people had the freedom to do what they wanted to do.
Hughes and Perez were best friends who had known each other since they were little, Osburn said. Hughes moved in with him in 1996 and helped him after Perez fled before sentencing in a child sex case in Beesville, Texas, which his attorney contends he did not commit.
"Patricia was the matriarch of this group, she got it started," Osburn said. "She befriended the women. She is the catalyst for everything."
Investigators initially believed Hughes drowned while trying to rescue her 2-year-old daughter from a swimming pool.
But in 2011, a woman who had been 12 years old at the time of Hughes' death told investigators the drowning had been staged. She said during a pretrial hearing that Hughes kissed her daughter goodbye and reassured another child that she would return from the dead.
The woman, whom The Associated Press isn't identifying because she says she is a victim of sexual assault, has said Perez and Hughes told her to wait with Hughes' daughter. She said she heard a splash and a scream, and that Perez's forearms were wet and he was out of breath. He told her to wait 20 minutes before going to the pool and getting into it with the toddler.
The woman also said he told her to then call the police and tell investigators Hughes fell and hit her head while trying to rescue her daughter.
Osburn tried to cast doubt on the claims of group members, saying they didn't come forward with accusations until authorities began investigating the group.