By ROXANA HEGEMAN, Associated Press
WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — The daughter of a Kansas commune leader charged in the 2003 death of a group member says her father could not have hurt the woman, even for money, because she had done so much for him and become "a part of him."
Windy Aleman told The Associated Press in an exclusive phone interview from Beeville, Texas, that Daniel U. Perez had fled sentencing on a criminal case in Texas several years earlier with the help of Patricia Hughes, the woman he's now accused of killing. Aleman said Hughes gave her fugitive father a place to stay and money so he could eat.
"He would never have made it without her — ever. She was the one who took care of him. ... She risked everything for him," said Aleman, who didn't know her father had been charged with murder in Hughes' death until recently when an AP reporter sent Aleman's mother a letter requesting an interview.
Police had believed the 26-year-old Hughes drowned while trying to rescue her 2-year-old daughter from a swimming pool at the Valley Center compound where the commune once lived. Now, prosecutors must show a judge they have enough evidence to prove her June 2003 death was premeditated murder perpetrated by the leader of a group that lived off millions of dollars in life insurance payouts from its dead members.
Police initially thought Hughes was killed after hitting her head when she went into the pool. She left a $1.2 million life insurance policy.
A preliminary hearing tentatively set for Thursday is expected to be continued for the 52-year-old Perez, who for years was known only by the false identity of Lou Castro. Law enforcement officials have refused to say what evidence led them to charge him with premeditated murder, and the hearing is expected to offer a glimpse into the state's case.
Perez also is charged with multiple counts of lying on life insurance applications, rape, sodomy, criminal threat and making false statements on auto credit applications. His attorney did not return numerous phone messages left by the AP.
Perez's daughter, Aleman, choked back tears at times when talking about her father, whom she had not heard from in recent years. She recalled the day in 1997 when her father was due in a Texas courtroom for sentencing on child sex charges. He instead came to her high school and took her out of class. She said Hughes was with him.
"He told me he couldn't go to the sentencing because he knew they were going to lock him up," said Aleman, who's now 31. "He was scared. He was telling me bye."
She said Hughes helped Perez flee. "If they had known she was hiding him, I mean, she would have been in just as much trouble."
During the years Perez was on the lam, Aleman said Hughes would periodically come to Beeville to pick her up and take her to Corpus Christi to secretly visit her father. She said Hughes even helped bring the U.S.-born Perez back into the country when he allowed himself to be voluntarily deported to Mexico rather than give authorities his true identity.
Since her death, Hughes' parents in court documents have alleged that Perez's group is linked to multiple deaths.
Authorities reviewed all those deaths but only filed charges in Hughes' because it's the only one in their jurisdiction, said Sedgwick County sheriff's Capt. Greg Pollock. He said authorities in those other locations have been notified and their own county investigation is closed.
Investigators untangled a web of false identities, lies and money that stretched through Texas, South Dakota, Missouri, Kansas and Tennessee:
— On Sept. 19, 2001, a plane crash near Norris, S.D., killed group member Mona Griffith, her 12-year-old daughter and her boyfriend. The National Transportation Safety Board found no anomalies with the airplane that would explain the crash and concluded the pilot likely encountered instrument flight conditions and lost control. Griffith left a $700,000 life insurance policy naming Hughes as beneficiary.
— On March 2, 2006, nearly three years after Hughes' death, her husband Brian Hughes was crushed to death when a jack failed while he was reportedly working on a car while visiting family in Rapid City, S.D. He had two life insurance policies totaling $1 million that named a group member as beneficiary. His will left nothing to his and Patricia's young daughter, but designated a second group member, Jennifer Hutson, as her guardian.
— On Sept. 22, 2008, Hutson is killed in a collision with a dump truck near Augusta, Kan.
In Kansas, the commune and its fugitive leader lived a lavish lifestyle in which members pooled their money, an attorney for Patricia Hughes' parents and a former neighbor to the group said.
Paula Alef, the ex-neighbor who befriended group members, called Perez "the dominating character of everyone out there."
"Everyone had to kind of do whatever he said — other than Patricia," Alef said. "She would be the only one who would stand her ground."
"He was very charming and he would take care of them — buy them cars, help in the financial ways and make them feel good, safe or whatever," she said. "Everyone liked him. How could you not? Very giving, huge heart. You just wouldn't know the dark side ever existed."