Trial approaching in Planada woman's kidnapping, murder

vpatton@mercedsunstar.comApril 2, 2013 

The jury trial of a couple accused of killing a Planada woman and kidnapping her baby is on track to move forward later this month.

Defendants Teresa Ceja Robles, 34, and Jose Augustine Velarde, 38, are charged with murder in the death of AnaLila Diaz DeCeja, 26, and with stealing her then-2-month-old son Anthony Ceja-Diaz.

Questionnaires are scheduled to be given to potential jurors April 16. Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II, who is prosecuting the case, said the trial could begin by the end of this month.

Although the couple are being tried together, two juries will hear the case because of certain state- ments the defendants made implicating one another.

Morse said he couldn't elaborate in depth about the case, with jury selection approaching in the next few weeks. Morse did say prosecutors are ready for trial. He's prosecuting the case with Deputy District Attorney Monika Saini.

"I can say we certainly believe the facts support the charges that have been filed against these defendants and we're waiting for our day in court to get this in front of a jury and hopefully arrive at justice," Morse said.

In August, there had been some questions about when the trial would move forward, because some of the autopsy reports had been left incomplete. The reports were handled by forensic pathologist Ann Bucholtz, who worked for the Merced County coroner's office until July 2011.

When Bucholtz's employment ended, DeCeja's autopsy reports hadn't been completed. However, Morse said the prosecution was successful in reaching Bucholtz, who now lives in Canada. Morse said issues regarding those reports have been resolved. "(Bucholtz) has been very cooperative in making herself available for this trial," Morse said.

The defendants and their attorneys are scheduled to appear in court Thursday and Friday to file motions. Jeffrey Tenenbaum, Robles' attorney, said he plans to file a motion to exclude some of the statements his client made to sheriff's detectives.

Tenenbaum has maintained his client's role in the crime was minimal, and that she had no idea Velarde was going to kill DeCeja. "She witnessed a horrible crime," Tenenbaum said.

Deputy Public Defender Sean Howard is representing Velarde in the case. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday afternoon.

DeCeja's body -- burned beyond recognition -- was found in an orchard near Snelling by Merced County sheriff's deputies. Her baby later was found alive on the doorstep of a Le Grand home.

Velarde and Robles, who are husband and wife, face charges of murder, kidnapping, child abuse and making a false report to police. After their arrest, the couple at first denied killing DeCeja but confessed after further questioning, according to authorities.

If convicted, they each face a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Both remain in custody at the Merced County Jail.

City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsunstar.com.

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