Planada murder trial: Female defendant was a willing participant in plot to kill, says prosecutor

vpatton@mercedsunstar.comMay 4, 2013 

Prosecutors in the trial of a couple accused of killing a Planada woman and kidnapping her baby focused on the female defendant Friday, saying she was a willing participant in the plot.

Those remarks came during the second day of opening statements in the trial of Maria Teresa Ceja Robles, 34, and Jose Augustine Velarde, 38, who are both charged with murder in the Dec. 2, 2010, death of Ana Lila Diaz DeCeja, 26. They are accused of kidnapping her 2-month-old son, Anthony Ceja-Diaz.

Robles put her head down and wept as Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II detailed to jurors how she and Velarde planned to get a baby in the weeks before the Dec. 2 plot unfolded.

Prosecutors have said the possible motive for the crimes was that Velarde wanted a son with Robles, who no longer could have children.

Morse told the Robles jury that she admitted during interviews with Merced County Sheriff's detectives that she had tried to buy a baby before DeCeja was killed.

He said Robles also admitted she decided to take DeCeja's baby the day before the young woman was killed. Robles told detectives her children and DeCeja's 7-year-old son attended Planada Elementary School.

Robles said she was at the school the day before the homicide and encountered DeCeja with her 2-month-old baby. Robles asked to hold the baby, and DeCeja agreed. Robles told detectives Micah Brawley and Mike Ruiz it was at that time she made the decision to get DeCeja's baby.

"Ana clearly had no idea that a murderous plot was hatching -- or it already hatched, in the mind of the woman cradling her infant child," Morse said. "Once that deadly decision had been made, the defendant turned her attention to how to accomplish that kidnapping."

The next day Robles lured the victim to her Market Street home in Planada, where Velarde strangled her to death, Morse said. Prosecutors believe DeCeja went to the home thinking she was going to look at scarves Robles had made.

In the weeks before the homicide, Morse said the couple told friends and family members that Robles was pregnant. Robles also told her children they would soon have a new baby brother.

Weeks before DeCeja was killed, Robles asked a man she met in south Merced's Stephen Leonard Park whether he would steal a baby for her for $1,500, but he refused, Morse said.

Morse said the couple also went to elaborate lengths to make it appear as if Robles was expecting a baby, such as taking a photo together, with Robles holding her stomach. Detectives also found a calendar that had the date of Dec. 2, 2010, marked as the day Robles was expecting, though she wasn't pregnant.

Abuse claim

Jeffrey Tenenbaum, Robles' attorney, claimed his client had endured multiple beatings, in addition to a serious level of physical and sexual abuse, at the hands of Velarde.

Velarde got Robles hooked on methamphetamine after spiking her drink with the drug, Tenenbaum said. The defense attorney said he expects to call several experts to testify about the emotional effects of domestic violence on victims.

Tenenbaum said that even though his client did pretend to be pregnant, knowing she no longer could have children, he maintained the plot was Velarde's idea.

According to Tenenbaum, Velarde even forced Robles to wear a pillow under her clothes and that failure to comply would result in violence against her daughter.

Tenenbaum said his client will testify during the trial that Velarde approached her the day before the homicide, claiming he'd been cheating with DeCeja and that the victim's 2-month-old child was his son.

"He told Maria (Robles) that he wanted to talk to Ana about it in the morning," Tenenbaum said.

The defense attorney said Velarde then told Robles that because DeCeja's child was his own, Robles should tell her other children that she'd be giving birth the next day.

Knowledge of plans?

"It never crossed her mind that Mr. Velarde was going to hurt Ana DeCeja," Tenenbaum said.

According to the defense, DeCeja arrived at the couple's home with her baby about 8 a.m. Dec. 2, 2010. Velarde instructed Robles to notify him when DeCeja got there, Tenenbaum said.

When Velarde showed up, DeCeja apparently became upset, and Robles walked into the bathroom. Tenenbaum said his client then walked back out and saw Velarde on top of DeCeja, choking her.

"Maria (Robles) rushed over to Mr. Velarde and said, 'What are you doing?' " Tenenbaum said.

Robles then told Velarde to call an ambulance. "And Mr. Velarde said, 'We're not calling an ambulance. It's too late. If you do, you're next.' " Tenenbaum said Velarde then threatened to sexually assault Robles' daughter if she tried to call for help.

After Friday's hearing, Morse said he couldn't comment about the Robles defense's theory of how the homicide happened.

During his opening statement, however, Morse told jurors he expected Tenenbaum would attempt to "shift all the blame for these horrific crimes" to Velarde.

The victim's husband, Luis DeCeja, said he disagreed with the defense's explanation of the crime and maintained his wife never had an affair with Velarde.

"It's just lies," he said, through a Spanish interpreted. "They just need a story to cover it up."

The couple are being tried together, but two juries are hearing the case because of certain statements the defendants made implicating one another. Both defendants have pleaded not guilty to the murder charges.

DeCeja's body, 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 believe the couple dropped off the baby for fear they would be caught because of the level of attention the case was receiving.

Velarde and Robles face charges of murder, kidnapping, child abuse and making a false report to police. The defendants remain in custody at the Merced County Jail. Testimony in the trial is expected to begin Monday.

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

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