Couple in Planada kidnapping/murder case make court appearance

February 8, 2011 

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SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG Defense Attorney Jeff Tenenbaum, left, for Maria Teresa Ceja Robles, second from left, a court interpreteur in middle, and Deputy Public Defender Eric Dumars for Jose Velarde were in court for the defendents pre-preliminary hearing Monday, February 7, 2011 afternoon in Superior Courtroom 10.

MARCI STENBERG — Merced Sun-Star

The couple accused of murdering Ana Lila Diaz DeCeja and abducting her 2-month-old son made a brief appearance Monday in Merced County Superior Court.

Dressed in yellow jailhouse uniforms, Maria Teresa Ceja Robles, 33, and her husband, Jose Augustine Velarde, 37, were quiet as attorneys discussed the case with Commissioner Ralph Cook. Velarde ducked behind his attorney after seeing a camera, and Ceja Robles had a somber expression.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen of DeCeja's family members quietly observed the hearing. Rodolfo Diaz, the victim's 19-year-old brother, said the family will be at every court hearing. Diaz said the victim's children are having a hard time dealing with the loss of their mother. "It's not easy," Diaz said. "That's the only thing I have to say."

Defense attorneys said they are still reviewing documents in the case, and Cook set the defendants' next hearing for April 4.

The couple was arrested Dec. 15, accused by authorities of strangling DeCeja on Dec. 2, setting her body on fire in an orchard near Snelling and kidnapping her 2-month-old son, Anthony Ceja Diaz.

Five days later, the infant was found on a doorstep of a house in Le Grand. At first, the couple intended to keep the infant as their own, Merced County sheriff's detectives said.

Both defendants have pleaded not guilty. Ceja Robles' attorney Jeffrey Tenenbaum has said his client was friends with the victim and feels remorse over the death. Tenenbaum has said his client had no idea Velarde was going to kill DeCeja.

Deputy Public Defender Sean Howard, Velarde's attorney, said it's too early to comment about the case. "We just got a lot of discovery and we're starting to review it," Howard said. "We'll know more as we proceed."

Both suspects are being held without bail.

Managing Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

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