Rio Rancho man gets 48 years in death of 6-year-old girl - Albuquerque Journal

Rio Rancho man gets 48 years in death of 6-year-old girl

Leland Hust at his sentencing hearing Thursday in the 2018 rape and strangulation death of a 6-year-old Rio Rancho girl. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Nearly four years after the rape and strangulation death of a 6-year-old Rio Rancho girl horrified New Mexicans, a judge sentenced Leland Hust to 48 years in prison for the crime.

Jurors convicted Hust in March of intentional child abuse resulting in the death of a child under 12, with a mandatory 30-year prison sentence, and criminal sexual penetration of a child under 13, which has a mandatory 18-year sentence.

Judge George Eichwald of the 13th Judicial District chose to run the two sentences consecutively and he sentenced Hust as a serious violent offender, meaning he will be required to serve about 45 years before he becomes eligible for parole.

“I can’t find enough adjectives to describe the house of horrors where this took place, or the brutality and viciousness of the crime in which you raped and murdered a little girl,” Eichwald said moments before handing down the sentence.

“The facts of this case were so vile and revolting that some of the jurors asked for counseling after one of the trials,” Eichwald said. “It was probably one of the worst cases I have ever seen.”

Hust declined to make a statement before he was sentenced.

Ariana “Jade” Romeo was found dead, partially clothed and bloodied on Aug. 11, 2018, in a converted garage in Rio Rancho. A forensic examination found that she had been raped and strangled or smothered to death.

Ariana’s mother, Stephanie Romeo, said at Hust’s sentencing hearing that she had climbed into bed with her daughter after returning home from work and didn’t realize the girl was dead until morning.

“The pain never stops,” Romeo told the judge.

“All we have left are pictures and memories because of what he did to her,” she said. “Even the happy pictures we have have now been overcast by the disgusting and horrific photos displayed in court of what he did to her in her last moments.”

The trial in March marked the second time Hust was tried in Ariana’s killing.

In June 2021, a jury found Hust not guilty of first-degree murder. 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 in March.

Eichwald approved a change of venue to Valencia County for both trials because of intensive pretrial publicity about the case.

Leland Hust at his sentencing hearing Thursday in the 2018 rape and strangulation death of 6-year-old Ariana “Jade” Romeo at a house in Rio Rancho. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Prosecutors argued in both trials that Hust was “obsessed” with Ariana and 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. Hust also knew he had a limited time to act because Ariana’s mother planned within days to move to a new apartment, Carson said.

Hust’s attorneys countered that police attempted to coerce a confession from Hust during an hourslong interview and seeded the idea in Hust’s mind that he had killed Ariana by telling him they had DNA evidence of his guilt.

His attorneys also argued that Hust, then 21, lacked the ability to plan the complex attack and avoid spreading evidence to his own room or other parts of the house.

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, 67, pleaded guilty in 2019 in an unrelated case to sexual contact of a minor, a third-degree felony, for inappropriately touching a female family member.

Defense and prosecution attorneys also sparred over the validity of DNA evidence collected from Ariana’s body and bedding.

Prosecutors argued that DNA evidence eliminated Scates as the attacker. They also argued that Hust was the only member of the household who could not be excluded as a contributor to the DNA evidence.

The defense countered that Hust had been a frequent visitor to Ariana’s room and that small amounts of his DNA could have been transferred to the girl’s body or bedding.

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