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Role of New Mexico Killer Challenges ‘Wicked’ Actress

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Catharine Pilafas had to work hard – and dig deep – to get her most recent role right.

Not only was the role demanding, but Pilafas took great care when it came to representing the person correctly.

“I’ve never been pushed so hard before in a role,” she explains. “It was a challenge – a welcomed one at that – but I think I stretched myself to make it a good representation. There was pressure because the woman I portrayed is still alive.”

Pilafas landed a role on Investigation Discovery’s “Fatal Encounters,” which shows the relationship between killer and victim as their paths intertwine. The TV series focuses on bizarre cases across the country and the episode that Pilafas was in is based on a case right in the heart of the Duke City.


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In the episode “Wicked,” Pilafas plays the role of Angela Sanford, who in March 2010 was arrested for the murder of 52-year-old Joel Leyva in the Sandia Foothills. Sanford, a self-proclaimed witch, had a chance encounter at a horse racetrack with Leyva and developed an unlikely friendship.

But on a late-night hike in the Sandia Foothills, Sanford brought Leyva to celebrate a Wiccan ritual of spring, and their friendship took an unexpected and mysterious turn. Sanford was convicted of murdering Leyva by stabbing him more than a dozen times with a dagger used in Wiccan rituals called an athane.

Sanford was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Dec. 2, 2011 – which is the maximum she could have received under her no-contest plea to second-degree murder – and she has already served two years.

Pilafas says a small crew from the NBC affiliate show shot the episode in October. It will air on Monday.

“The director narrates the entire show,” she says. “It was done on a small scale, but the story is so bizarre.”

In getting into character, Pilafas says she really didn’t have anything in common with Sanford.

“You could tell that she was an outcast and really stayed to herself,” she says. “You could tell she had this tortured past that she was dealing with.”

During the shoot, Pilafas says there were only two moments when she found herself a little disturbed. She says there was a scene in which she is doing a Wiccan worship with candles and incense and another scene in which she called Leyva and his number was input into her cellphone as “sacrifice.”

“These moments were all too real,” she says. “I couldn’t imagine anything like this happening, but it did.”

Pilafas, who moved to New Mexico nearly two years ago with her husband, has gotten roles on the TV shows “In Plain Sight” and “Longmire” as well as a new Web series “New America.” She was also the lead in the New Mexico-made film “Billy Shakespeare,” which will have its England premiere in June.

But the role of Sanford is her “most unattractive and devastating role” to date.

“As an actor, I’m always looking for avenues to test myself,” she explains. “I’m looking forward to doing many more projects that will help me push myself into various roles.”

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