Horrific details emerged Monday and Tuesday during the preliminary hearing in the case of a couple accused of kidnapping a woman's baby before killing her and burning her body in an orchard northwest of Snelling late last year.
Several sheriff's detectives and deputies were called to the stand to recount details from witness interviews and evidence accumulated during the case. During a preliminary hearing, a judge typically determines whether there's enough evidence to proceed to trial.
Maria Teresa Ceja Robles, 34, and Jose Augustine Velarde, 37, are accused of luring Ana Lila Diaz DeCeja to their home, killing her and kidnapping her 2-month-old son.
Sheriff's Detective Mike Ruiz testified Monday that during an interview with Ceja Robles, she admitted to the plan to kidnap the child because Velarde wanted a baby boy -- and that she claimed murder wasn't part of the plan.
But when DeCeja was invited to the defendants' home to look at scarves Ceja Robles had made, Velarde, wearing gloves, strangled DeCeja and held her arms at her sides with his knees, Detective Jose Sanchez recounted from an interview with Velarde. He added that she struggled during the 10 minutes it took to kill her.
Sanchez also testified that during an interrogation, Velarde admitted to setting DeCeja's body on fire as well as his clothes and the car used to transport the body to get rid of the evidence.
Ruiz said that when he arrived at the scene where the body was burned, he couldn't see flames, but could hear crackling and the area smelled like burning hair.
When investigators asked Ceja Robles why she didn't intervene as Velarde strangled DeCeja, Ceja Robles claimed she was fearful Velarde would harm her and her kids and rape her daughter if she stepped in, Ruiz recounted on the witness stand.
As Jeffrey Tenenbaum, Ceja Robles' attorney, questioned Sanchez on the witness stand, he testified that before the crime took place, Ceja Robles had asked a man at a park to kidnap the baby and "hit" the woman for $1,500, but the man refused and later notified authorities of the encounter.
During the hearing, Ceja Robles -- wearing shackles and a yellow jailhouse uniform -- looked straight ahead with little expression on her face. Velarde, dressed in similar attire, kept his head down. Both defendants used interpreters.
DeCeja's husband, who was reunited with the baby in December after the infant was found on a Le Grand doorstep, was watching on both days of the hearing with help from an interpreter.
He was joined by other family members, including Yanira Granados, DeCeja's cousin, who said the graphic details of the slaying were tough to hear.
"It's harder to actually hear everything in detail about how they killed and strangled her," she said Tuesday. "At the end of the day, we will never have her (DeCeja) back, and the only thing we want is for them to pay for what they did. Even if they don't end up in jail, we know there's an afterlife, and they'll pay in hell."
Ceja Robles and Velarde are facing murder charges with enhancements of lying in wait and kidnapping to accomplish murder, kidnapping and child endangerment. Ceja Robles faces an additional charge of solicitation for kidnapping.
The death penalty is being considered for the case, said District Attorney Larry Morse II.
However, some of the standards to meet that sentence may not be in the cards, he said, adding that out of about 200 county homicide cases in the past 10 years, only two were death penalty trials.
An arraignment date for Ceja Robles and Velarde, who will continue to be held without bail, has been set at 8:15 a.m. July 13 in Courtroom 10 of the Merced County Superior Court.
Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or firstname.lastname@example.org.