Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
LOS LUNAS – Leland Hust repeatedly told Rio Rancho police detectives in a recorded interview that he could not remember raping or strangling the 6-year-old girl he is accused of killing.
Hust, 24, wept and appeared distraught as he struggled to remember events surrounding the death of Ariana “Jade” Romeo in the video played for jurors Thursday in Hust’s trial.
Rio Rancho police interviewed Hust for about six hours on Oct. 5, 2018, the day he was arrested, about two months after Ariana’s killing.
“I can’t remember what happened or what I did,” Hust told detectives in the recording. “I don’t know how it happened. I am trying to remember so I can help.”
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.
Presiding 13th Judicial District Judge George P. Eichwald ordered a change of venue to Los Lunas because of extensive media coverage of the case.
Detectives at times accused Hust of lying or repressing his memory of Ariana’s killing. During the interview, then-Rio Rancho police detective Aaron Brown showed Hust a crime-scene photo of Ariana after her death.
“Leland, you did this,” Brown told Hust in the recording. “You don’t want to see this picture because you don’t want to come to grips with what happened.”
Hust’s attorney, Michael Rosenfield later questioned Brown about the comment.
“Did you give up trying to find the truth at that point?” Rosenfield asked.
Brown said the purpose of the interview was to gather information about Ariana’s killing.
Rosenfield said detectives used hardball interrogation techniques to coerce a confession, such as accusing Hust of lying, and suggesting to Hust that he had been sleepwalking when he killed Ariana, or that he had killed the girl accidentally or by mistake.
Brown responded that detectives were asking questions only in an attempt to learn the truth.
Brown also said detectives hadn’t intended to question Hust for six hours. The interview continued because Hust wanted to talk and did not ask to leave, he said.
Ariana was found nearly naked and bleeding in a bedroom of a Rio Rancho home she and her mother shared with Hust and seven others.