Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal
The first time Rio Rancho police responded to a report about Leland Hust, he was 10 years old and threatening to kill himself.
His stepmother reported that the boy was trying to suffocate himself during a temper tantrum. When officers arrived, Hust told them he wanted to die “because he wasn’t loved enough by his family.”
Eleven years later, Hust is facing charges in the strangulation death of 6-year-old Ariana Romeo in Rio Rancho.
The 2007 police report is one of a dozen since then about Hust, now 21 years old. They detail threats of suicide, threats against classmates and teachers, and attempts to run away.
Eventually, Hust and his mother began living with Winston Scates Sr. and his wife, who is listed in a police report as his grandmother.
It was in August at the Scates’ home, in the 200 block of Moonstone NE near N.M. 528 and Northern NE, that police found Ariana’s body on a makeshift mattress in a garage that had been converted into a bedroom.
Detectives have not said how or whether Ariana and her mother are related to Scates and his wife, or Hust. But police have said that the pair hadn’t been staying with them for very long. They had moved to New Mexico over a year ago.
Hust, who was arrested Friday after a nearly two-month investigation, is charged with aggravated criminal sexual penetration of a minor and child abuse resulting in death.
During the investigation, police also heard allegations against Scates, 63, who is now charged with criminal sexual contact of a young female relative.
Hust’s mother and family members declined interview requests with the Journal.
As a young teenager, Hust was no stranger to Rio Rancho police.
Police reports detail a lengthy history of being involved in trouble at school while he was bounced among family members and foster homes.
The reports start in 2007 with the temper tantrum at his stepmother’s house, where Hust threatened suicide, tried to suffocate himself and banged his head on the floor.
“He said that his birth-mother wanted him dead and that his step-father … didn’t pay enough attention to him,” an officer wrote in a police report. “He appeared out of touch with reality. … He contended that his only recourse was to commit suicide.”
Hust was taken to Kaseman Hospital for a mental health evaluation.
Then, in 2010, according to a police report, 13-year-old Hust used a knife to threaten a teacher and fellow students at Rio Rancho Middle School.
School staffers told officers Hust had been in trouble several times for acts of vandalism and violence, including threatening to kill a teacher and students with a sharpened pencil.
Hust told police he “was only trying to scare them to leave him alone and he would never hurt them.”
Hust was suspended and ended up at Desert Pathways, an alternative program of the Rio Rancho Public Schools, where his problems continued – from 2011 to 2015, police were called to the school several times – until a school district spokeswoman said he dropped out at 18.
On one occasion, Hust was reported for threatening a teacher with a pencil at Desert Pathways. Another time, it was for allegedly destroying a flat-screen monitor and threatening to kill a security guard.
At one point, juvenile probation and parole officers told police they could not jail Hust because he already had a pending competency hearing. It is unclear what that hearing was related to or how it was resolved.
Overall, the reports paint a picture of a shifting home life for Hust as he lived with different families and foster parents before ending up at the house on Moonstone with his mother and grandparents.
In a report from 2011, Hust was reported missing from a home one block away from Scates’ house.
A woman there told police Hust had been staying with her “for a short time, while his mother was trying to find somewhere else to live.”
An officer reported that police couldn’t find Hust, but they found his mother, who told them “she has been trying to get him back into a (Children Youth and Families Department) program” and that Hust had been “very disruptive to the other children in her family.”
Police say they found him a short time later and took him to his mother.
“Before we left the family, they understood that it was their responsibility to care for Leland,” an officer wrote.
In 2013, Hust lived with two foster homes and was back living with his mother by the end of the year. He told a counselor at Desert Pathways that he “was done” and was going to drown himself.
When a family member picked him up, they told police Hust was on “numerous bipolar medications” and they had noticed he “had been irritated lately.”
Not all of the reports are about Hust.
In 2015, he was the one to report child abuse when he said he saw his friend’s dad kick and push his 2-year-old son after the child knocked over the TV and broke it.
He provided a witness statement to police, but the father denied abusing the child and officers found no evidence he had been hurt.
A DNA match
On Aug. 11 – a Saturday – shortly after 10:15 a.m., police ran into Hust again.
Stephanie Romeo had found her young daughter dead on a makeshift foam mattress. There were signs that she had been sexually assaulted.
The Office of the Medical Investigator determined Ariana had been dead for around 12 hours, according to a criminal complaint filed in Sandoval County Magistrate Court.
Hust was still in the home when officers arrived.
In a police interview almost two weeks later, Hust said the last time he saw Ariana was the night before her body was found, when he put a movie on for her in her room.
“Leland claimed he was sleeping when Ariana got hurt, and denied causing harm or death to Ariana,” a detective wrote in a complaint.
However, Hust had submitted buccal swabs – cell samples taken from inside the mouth – and the New Mexico State Crime Lab determined those samples matched DNA found on Ariana, according to the complaint.
Last Friday, Hust was brought into the Rio Rancho Police Department for another interview.
This time, it ended with him being led out of the station to a chorus of questions from reporters.
It is unclear if he changed his story about the night Ariana was killed, but detectives say they had enough evidence to charge him. He was booked into the Sandoval County Detention Center.
Hust made his first court appearance Tuesday morning.
His public defender, Michael Rosenfield, said he was appointed to the case a couple of hours earlier, and had filed an entry of appearance and made an appointment to visit his client in jail.
Prosecutors from the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office could not be reached for comment.
Scates also had his first court appearance Tuesday morning.
According to a criminal complaint filed in that case, during the investigation into Ariana’s death, detectives were told Scates had molested a young family member.
The family member said he had touched her breasts over her clothing “more times than (she) could count,” starting when she was six years old.
Scates told detectives he had touched the girl when he hugged her and “that he did it because he is obsessed with breasts.”
Prosecutors from the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office have asked for both men to be held in jail pending trial. A judge will hold a hearing on that motion.
In a news release Tuesday, the Rio Rancho Police Department defended the time it took for them to investigate, saying every effort was made to ensure the safety of the community.
Capt. Andrew Rodriguez, an RRPD spokesman, appeared to nod to the similar case of 10-year-old Victoria Martens in Albuquerque two years ago.
Three suspects, including Victoria’s mother, were almost immediately charged with rape and murder, but the case against them has since unraveled.
“Recent high profile investigations have demonstrated that due diligence is prudent in order to ensure a successful prosecution and ultimately, in this case, justice for Ariana Jade Romeo,” Rodriguez wrote.