Slaying trial jury watches interviews

In taped police videos, defendant describes strangling

vpatton@mercedsunstar.comMay 27, 2013 

— Jurors in the homicide trial of Maria Teresa Ceja Robles and Jose Augustine Velarde this week got their first look at video footage of interviews conducted with Velarde by Merced County sheriff's detectives.

The defendants are accused in the murder of Ana Lila Diaz DeCeja, 26, on Dec. 2, 2010, and the kidnapping of her 2-month-old son, Anthony Ceja.

Prosecutors believe the couple carried out a plot to kill DeCeja because they desired a son and wanted to raise the victim's baby as their own.

The video, which shows a more than two-hour interview in Spanish between Detective Sam Sanchez and Velarde, is crucial to the case. During the questioning, Velarde admits to killing DeCeja.

The interview was conducted about two weeks after the victim's burned body was found in an orchard near Snelling. Jurors were shown the video Thursday afternoon and Friday morning.

During the interview, Velarde first claimed he had been working at an area ranch the day DeCeja was murdered.

After repeated questioning by Sanchez, however, Velarde admitted strangling DeCeja. Velarde told Sanchez he attacked DeCeja, forcing her to the floor and then climbing on top of her. He then pinned her hands to her sides with his knees and strangled her.

Velarde told Sanchez it took about 10 minutes to kill DeCeja, who struggled and fought but couldn't get free.

Velarde told the detective he then "did what he had to do," driving to an orchard near Snelling, dumping DeCeja's body and dousing her with gasoline. He ignited the fire with a lighter and tossed the lighter into the flames.

"That's what you wanted to know," Velarde then told Sanchez.

During questioning Velarde told Sanchez that he had wanted a son, but added he "didn't want it like that."

Prosecutors believe the couple lured DeCeja to their 85 Market St. home in Planada on Dec. 2 in a plot to steal her 2-month-old boy.

The prosecution believes intense media coverage of the case caused the couple to leave the baby on the porch of a Le Grand home after the homicide. The infant was unclothed and inside a pillow case.

The child eventually was reunited with his family.

Ceja Robles' attorney, Jeffrey Tenenbaum, claims his client was the victim of abuse. He said she became hooked on methamphetamine at the hands of Velarde and was unaware he was going to kill DeCeja.

Deputy Public Defender Sean Howard maintains his client, Velarde, is innocent and did not kill DeCeja.

Velarde and Robles face charges of murder, kidnapping, child abuse and making a false report to police. If convicted, they face life in prison.

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