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LOS LUNAS – A jury found Leland Hust guilty Friday on two felony counts in the 2018 rape and strangulation death of a 6-year-old Rio Rancho girl.
Hust, 24, placed his head on the defense table and wept after a judge read the verdicts. Later he could be heard wailing after deputies removed him from the courtroom.
Jurors found Hust guilty of child abuse resulting in death, which has a mandatory 30-year prison sentence, and criminal sexual penetration of a child under 13, which has a mandatory 18-year sentence. They reached the verdict after deliberating for about six hours.
Sentencing will take place at a later date.
The trial marks the second time Hust was tried in the August 2018 rape and strangulation death of Ariana “Jade” Romeo in a house in Rio Rancho.
District Attorney Barbara Romo and other members of the prosecution team hugged Ariana’s mother, Stephanie Romeo, after the verdicts were read.
“I’m happy that Stephanie can have some closure and little Jade can rest in peace now,” Romo said. “You can’t give up on a 6-year-old girl who was brutally raped and murdered.”
Romeo said she was satisfied with the end result, which came nearly four years after her daughter’s death.
“It’s been a process, and I’m satisfied with the result,” she said.
Judge George Eichwald of the 13th Judicial District Court did not set a sentencing date Friday.
Prosecutors argued in closing arguments Friday that Hust was “obsessed” with the girl living in his house and had an ideal opportunity to rape and kill the girl. Hust’s attorneys responded that investigators overlooked a convicted sex offender who lived in the household as a more likely suspect in Ariana’s killing.
In June 2021, a jury found Hust not guilty of first-degree murder in the killing. Jurors deliberated 17 hours in that trial.
But jurors deadlocked on charges of child abuse resulting in death and criminal sexual penetration of a child under 13, the charges Hust was convicted of on Friday.
Prosecutors told jurors that Hust waited until other members of the household were asleep or absent to attack the girl.
Assistant District Attorney Neil Carson emphasized the close proximity of Hust’s room to the converted garage where Ariana stayed with her mother, who worked at a Rio Rancho brew pub and typically didn’t return home until 3 a.m.
Hust’s mother also was out of the house at the time, he said.
“This was a crime of opportunity,” Carson told jurors. Hust knew he had to act quickly because Ariana’s mother had found a new apartment and had immediate plans to move.
Hust “knew that Jade was moving out in a matter of days,” Carson said, referring to the girl by her nickname.
Hust’s attorney, Graham Dumas, told jurors in closing arguments that detectives “ignored obvious inconsistencies in their evidence” and overlooked homeowner Winston Scates Sr. as a suspect.
Scates, 66, pleaded guilty in 2019 to sexual contact of a minor, a third-degree felony, for inappropriately touching a female family member.
Police developed “tunnel vision” focusing on Hust as the suspect and failed to collect key evidence that may have exonerated him or identified other suspects, Dumas said.
For example, police failed to collect as evidence sex toys found in Scates’ bedroom until weeks after the killing, he said.
Hust, then 21, also lacked the ability to plan the complex attack and avoid spreading evidence to his own room and other parts of the house, Dumas said.
“There is no evidence of blood on Leland’s hands,” Dumas said. Nor was Ariana’s blood found outside her room, he said.
FBI agents who searched Hust’s room soon after the attack found no evidence of Hust’s involvement, Dumas said.
Ariana was found dead, partially clothed and bloodied on Aug. 11, 2018, in the converted garage of the Rio Rancho house she and her mother shared with Hust and others. A forensic examination found that she had been raped and strangled or smothered to death.
Ariana’s mother testified last year that she climbed into bed with her daughter after returning home and didn’t realize the girl was dead until the next morning.
Hust’s attorneys contend that police attempted to coerce a confession from Hust during an hourslong interview that attorneys described as an “interrogation.” The interview took place in October 2018, the day of Hust’s arrest and some two months after Ariana was killed.
Defense and prosecution attorneys sparred over the validity of DNA evidence collected both from Ariana’s body and bedding.
Carson told jurors that Hust was the only member of the household who could not be excluded as a contributor to DNA evidence found at the scene. DNA evidence also eliminates Scates as the attacker, he said.
Defense attorneys responded that investigators found only small amounts of DNA evidence and nothing that proves Hust killed the girl. Hust had been a frequent visitor to Ariana’s room and his DNA could have been transferred to the girl’s body or bedding, they said.
Police seeded the idea in Hust’s mind that he killed Ariana by telling him they had DNA evidence of his guilt, leading him to make incriminating statements, Dumas told jurors.
“There is just not enough DNA to support the state’s theory, and that is a huge problem for the case,” he said.