WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A man who led a Kansas commune that collected millions of dollars in life insurance payouts from dead members was convicted of premeditated murder Wednesday in the 2003 drowning death of a female member.
Daniel Perez, 55, also was found guilty of 27 other counts, some alleging that he sexually abused minor daughters of the commune's members and devised a scheme to receive life insurance payments from members who lived on a 20-acre site in suburban Wichita known as Angels Landing.
Witnesses testified during the trial about sexual violence and the death of six people as the group wandered over 15 years into several states and Mexico before settling at the elaborate compound. Perez, who went by Lou Castro, was charged only with the death of 26-year-old Patricia Hughes, who died in the commune's pool.
For nearly a decade, Hughes' death was considered an accident. But a woman who was 12 at the time told authorities in 2011 that Hughes and Perez arranged her death so the compound could receive $1.24 million from her life insurance policy.
The woman, whom The Associated Press isn't identifying because she says she is a victim of sexual assault, said during a pretrial hearing that Hughes kissed her daughter goodbye and reassured another child that she would return from the dead.
While expressing satisfaction with Wednesday's verdict, Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett told reporters the case and outcome "is the reflection of a terrible time in a lot of lives."
"Is this a happy moment? The answer is, 'Sure, we got the verdict,'" Bennett said. But "we heard about life after life that was adversely affected by this man."
A message left Wednesday with Perez's court-appointed attorney, Alice Osburn, was not immediately returned.
Authorities were told Hughes drowned after falling and becoming unconscious while trying to save her toddler daughter from the pool. The witness said in reality, Perez and Hughes got into the pool and she heard a scream and a splash. She said she was told to wait 20 minutes while Perez drove to a dealership to establish an alibi, then jump into the pool with the toddler and call 911.
Perez testified that he was not at the compound when Hughes died, and the distraught girl blamed herself for not being able to save Hughes.
Several other women testified that Perez coerced them into sex when they were minors. One said the girls were told Perez was a type of seer, and another testified that she submitted out of fear for her life and the lives of relatives. Others testified about millions of dollars in life insurance policies sold to people associated with Perez who died after naming others in the commune as beneficiaries. The witnesses said Perez directed the scheme and profited from it.
Perez claimed he was innocent of all the allegations, saying he was called a "seer" as a type of nickname. He said a genital injury prevented him from having sex with uncooperative partners and all of his partners were of legal age. He also said he suffered severe memory loss after a beating in Texas in 1997 and that he didn't know where the millions of dollars his commune received came from.