Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
LOS LUNAS – Leland Hust wept uncontrollably and appeared overcome with emotion in a video recorded the day 6-year-old Ariana “Jade” Romeo was found raped and strangled to death in the Rio Rancho house where they both lived.
Hust, now 24, who is on trial in the girl’s 2018 rape and killing, appeared to struggle to understand how the girl may have died.
“Why did she have to die?” Hust said, his voice barely intelligible at times. “There was nothing wrong with her when she went to bed. If there was something wrong with her, she would have said so.”
At one point in the interview, played Tuesday for jurors, Hust wondered aloud if Ariana had been bitten by a poisonous spider.
“Why would anybody want to hurt her?” he asked. Hust said he curled up in bed and cried after he learned Ariana was dead.
The interview took place Aug. 11, 2019, the day Ariana was found dead by her mother in the house they shared with Hust and seven others.
The interview was performed by a forensic interviewer experienced with questioning children involved in sex crimes.
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. Hust could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted on either charge.
He was arrested two months after Ariana’s death. Hust was 21 at the time.
He contends he did not rape or kill Ariana.
Hust’s attorney Michael Rosenfield told jurors in his opening statement last week that police coerced Hust into making incriminating statements by overstating the strength of DNA evidence implicating him.
Rosenfield also told jurors that police bungled the investigation, destroying evidence that could have identified the killer.
Ariana’s mother, Stephanie Romeo, told jurors last week that she climbed into bed with her daughter after a long night at work without realizing her daughter had been raped and strangled several hours earlier.
Eve Tokumaru, a forensic scientist with the New Mexico Department of Public Safety, said in her testimony Tuesday that she tested DNA collected from a variety of sources from Ariana’s body.
Hust “could not be eliminated” as a source of the DNA in many of those samples, Tokumaru testified. Other members of the household could be eliminated as a source of many of those samples, she said.
Tokumaru said she found no semen from samples collected in Ariana’s bedroom.
Hust’s attorney Graham Dumas questioned Tokumaru about the possibility of “DNA transfer” that may have left Hust’s DNA on Ariana’s body.
Earlier witnesses testified that Hust was often in Ariana’s bedroom, which could explain the presence of Hust’s DNA throughout the room, Dumas said.
“If the perpetrator came into (Ariana’s) room wearing gloves” and touched items Hust had touched, it could have left his DNA on the girl’s body, Dumas said. Tokumaru acknowledged that the scenario is possible.