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LOS LUNAS – Stephanie Romeo told a jury Wednesday that she came home from a long night of work in 2018 and climbed into bed beside her 6-year-old daughter without realizing the girl had been raped and strangled to death a few hours earlier.
Later that morning, Romeo told jurors, she tried to wake her daughter, Ariana “Jade” Romeo, and found the girl’s largely nude and bloodied body wrapped tightly in a sheet.
Romeo told jurors she began screaming when she realized that her daughter was dead. She broke down in tears several times as she described the condition of her daughter’s body during testimony Wednesday at the trial of Leland Hust, 24, who is accused of killing Ariana in August 2018.
Hust is charged with intentional child abuse resulting in death, and rape of a child younger than 13, both first-degree felonies. He faces an alternative count of first-degree murder during the commission of a felony. If convicted of either charge, Hust could be sentenced to life in prison.
Hust’s attorney told jurors Wednesday that Rio Rancho police botched the investigation and later coerced Hust into making incriminating statements by overstating the strength of DNA evidence implicating Hust.
“This is a murky case based on insufficient investigation,” Hust’s attorney, Michael Rosenfield, said in his opening statement. Sloppy police work at the time destroyed evidence at the scene that could have identified the killer, he argued.
But Assistant District Attorney Jannette Mondragón told jurors that police investigated the killing for two months before arresting Hust, brushing aside any contention that there was a rush to judgment in the case.
She also noted in her opening that DNA evidence is crucial in proving Hust’s guilt. Hust was the only member of the household who could not be eliminated as a source of the DNA from a vaginal swab conducted on the victim, Mondragón said.
She also said Hust was the last person to see Ariana alive, a claim Rosenfield disputes. Ariana, her mother and Hust shared a home with several others in Rio Rancho.
Hust was 21 at the time he was charged.
Presiding 13th Judicial District Judge George P. Eichwald estimated that the trial will take 7-10 days. Jury selection was held Monday and Tuesday.
Earlier this year, Eichwald ordered a change in venue to the Valencia County Courthouse in Los Lunas because of extensive media coverage of the case.
Rosenfield argued in his opening that Rio Rancho investigators gave Hust false information about the amount and location of DNA evidence, causing the young man to question his own innocence.
The two-hour interview, which occurred two months after Ariana’s death, quickly turned from “nice talk to bad talk,” he told jurors. “He was vulnerable,” he said of Hust. He was “made to believe that his DNA was found in quantity sufficient to convict him.”
Until then, he said, Hust had been adamant during a two-hour interrogation that he loved Ariana, thought of her as a sister and would never have hurt her.
Trace amounts of Hust’s DNA found on the swab could be explained by the transfer of genetic material from objects Hust and the girl shared in the home, Rosenfield said.
“This could explain how Mr. Hust’s DNA ended up on that vaginal swab,” he said.
Rosenfield said an expert witness also will testify that DNA from a second man was found on the swab.
Mondragón said Hust had the perfect opportunity to attack Ariana because her mother was at work.
Hust “had an opportunity that night, and he took it,” she said.
Prosecutors played for the jury portions of audio recordings of phone calls that Hust made from the jail to Romeo, Ariana’s mother.
Romeo acknowledged under questioning from Hust’s attorney that she wanted Hust to admit to killing Ariana so she could provide the recordings to police.
In one recording, Hust and Romeo discussed the possibility that another member of the household had killed the girl. Asked by Hust’s attorney about the conversation, Romeo said she was “going along with what he was saying” in an effort to get as much information as she could.
In one recording, Romeo told Hust she was “horrible” without Ariana. “I literally can’t function without her,” she said.
Hust replied that he also missed Ariana.