Planada murder-kidnap trial: One jury chosen, 1 to go

vpatton@mercedsunstar.comApril 24, 2013 

— Opening statements are expected to begin next week in the trial of a couple accused of killing a Planada woman and kidnapping her 2-month-old son.

Maria Teresa Ceja Robles, 34, and Jose Augustine Velarde, 38, are charged with murder in the December 2010 death of Ana Lila Diaz DeCeja, 26. They also are accused of kidnapping her son, Anthony Ceja-Diaz.

Although they are being tried together, two juries will hear the case because of certain statements the defendants made implicating one another.

Jurors for Velarde were selected Wednesday, and Robles' jury is expected to be chosen early next week.

Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said he thinks that attorneys could begin opening statements May 2. The trial is expected to last until the end of the month.

"We believe the facts warrant the charges that have been filed, and we'll look to a jury to determine the outcome," Morse said Wednesday.

Morse is prosecuting the case with Deputy District Attorney Monika Saini. Deputy Public Defender Sean Howard is representing Velarde, while Jeffrey Tenenbaum is representing Robles.

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

Prosecutors say they believe that the couple lured DeCeja to their Planada home at 85 Market St. on Dec. 2, 2010, in a plot to steal her baby. Robles told detectives that Velarde strangled the victim.

Velarde and Robles, who are husband and wife, face charges of murder, kidnapping, child abuse and making a false report to police. Both have pleaded not guilty.

The couple denied killing DeCeja but confessed during further questioning, according to authorities.

Both defendants remain 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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