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Commune leader's hearing offers glimpse into case

Published on -5/29/2012, 6:34 AM

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WICHITA, Kan. (AP) -- Prosecutors must show a judge enough evidence this week to justify a murder trial for a commune leader accused of killing a woman whose 2003 death was initially believed to be an accidental drowning.

Law enforcement officials have refused to say what led them to charge Daniel U. Perez, 52, with premeditated first-degree murder in the death of Patricia Hughes, 26. Police at first believed Hughes drowned while trying to rescue her 2-year-old daughter from a swimming pool at the Valley Center compound where the commune once lived.

The preliminary hearing is expected to offer the first public glimpse into the state's case against the leader of a group whose members allegedly lived lavish lifestyles off millions in life insurance payouts. The proceeding, expected to last two to three days, begins Tuesday.

Perez, better known by the bogus identity of Lou Castro, also faces multiple counts of lying on life insurance applications, rape, sodomy, criminal threat and making false statements on auto credit applications.

Hughes' parents have alleged in court documents that the group is linked to other deaths including two people linked to Hughes' daughter.

Neither prosecuting nor defense attorneys returned calls to The Associated Press seeking comment.

Among the witnesses subpoenaed to testify at the hearing are group member Kara Lemeir, coroner Mary Dudley and an alleged rape victim, court records show. But the state's potential witness list includes an unusual medley that reaches deep into the secret past of a fugitive who had zealously hidden his true identity.

It is unknown who will actually take the stand at his trial, but the state's witness list includes Perez's two ex-wives from Texas; his brother; several commune members; the dump truck driver involved in a collision that killed a group member; an eyewitness to that traffic accident; a man who allegedly sold his own identity to Perez for $2,500; and numerous law enforcement officials.

Perez was arrested in 2010 in Nashville, Tenn., on a federal identity theft charge, and served his federal sentence before being transferred to Kansas in January to face state charges that were filed under seal months earlier.

His adult daughter, Windy Aleman, told The Associated Press earlier this year that Hughes helped her father flee Texas before his 1997 sentencing on child sex charges. She doesn't believe he would have hurt the woman who once risked everything by hiding him.

She recalled the day in 1997 when her father was due in a Texas courtroom for sentencing. He instead came to her high school and took her out of class. She said Hughes was with him at the time.

"He told me he couldn't go to the sentencing because he knew they were going to lock him up," said Aleman. "He was scared. He was telling me bye."

During the years Perez was on the lam, Aleman said Hughes would periodically come to Beeville to pick her up and take her to Corpus Christi to secretly visit her father. She said Hughes even helped bring the U.S.-born Perez back into the country when he allowed himself to be voluntarily deported to Mexico rather than give authorities his true name.

Aleman said in a phone call Thursday from Beeville, Texas, that she has been barred from visiting or communicating with her father at the Sedgwick County Detention Center because she is apparently a potential state witness. However, neither she nor her relatives in Texas have been subpoenaed for the upcoming hearing, she said.

Aleman has gotten a single letter from her jailed father, responding to a letter she had sent him after finding out about the Kansas charges earlier this year when AP first contacted his family for comment.

"I know he is doing OK, considering where he is at," Aleman said. "He said he is OK and for me just to go and see him as soon as this no-contact is lifted."

In court documents filed in a custody dispute over the slain woman's orphaned daughter, Hughes' parents -- who also live in Beeville, Texas -- have alleged that the group is linked to multiple deaths.

Among those other deaths: a 2001 plane crash in South Dakota that killed a group member, her 12-year-old daughter and her boyfriend; a 2006 accident in which Hughes' husband was killed when a car jack failed and the car he was working on crushed him in South Dakota; and a 2008 traffic accident that killed another group member who had legal custody of Hughes' orphaned daughter.

Sedgwick County Sheriff's Capt. Greg Pollock told AP earlier this year that authorities have reviewed all those deaths, but filed murder charges only in Hughes' death because it's the only one in their jurisdiction.

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