MERCED — The trial of a couple accused of killing a Planada woman and kidnapping her baby was in its final stage Thursday, with prosecutors calling the female defendant "the brain" and her boyfriend "the muscle" in the murder-kidnap plot.
Maria Ceja Robles and Jose Augustine Velarde are accused of killing Ana Lila Diaz DeCeja on Dec. 2, 2010, and kidnapping her 2-month-old son, Anthony Ceja.
In closing arguments, Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II told jurors Thursday that Ceja Robles is an egocentric and "practiced liar" who manipulated and controlled Velarde.
"Velarde would have done anything for this woman. And he did. He murdered," Morse said. "She didn't care about Ana's family losing the baby. She only cared about herself this is a scary woman, ladies and gentleman."
Prosecutors believe Ceja Robles used her friendship with the victim to lure her inside the couple's home under the guise of looking at knitted baby scarves.
Ceja Robles claimed on the stand that Velarde strangled the victim before burning her body and disposing it in an orchard near Snelling. Ceja Robles has said she was inside the bathroom and unaware that Velarde killed DeCeja.
The baby was later found alive on the doorstep of a Le Grand home. He was placed naked inside a pillow case, according to testimony.
But Morse said Ceja Robles had a plan to steal the infant, and she even told detectives after her arrest she wanted the baby after holding him a day prior to the murder. "Once Ceja (Robles) made the decision 'This is the baby I want,' Ana's fate was sealed," Morse said. "Kidnapping Anthony to raise as their own only worked if Ana died."
As part of the plot, Ceja Robles had asked a man at a park if he would steal a baby and "hit" its mother for $1,500, Morse said.
Though Velarde used his physical strength to take DeCeja's life, Morse said, he believes Ceja Robles helped during the five-minute strangulation. The prosecution played a timed countdown of five minutes, illustrating the length of time it took to kill DeCeja. "That tells us it must have been one hell of a fight," Morse said. "The evidence shows it took both of them to do it."
Ceja Robles said she was inside the bathroom, with the fan running and her hands covering her ears during the killing, which Morse called "ridiculous on so many levels."
Jeffrey Tenenbaum, Ceja Robles' attorney, challenged jurors to think about his client's accountability and intent, especially because she didn't kill the victim.
"What we know from the evidence is that the man that sat here Mr. Velarde strangled DeCeja and killed her," Tenenbaum said. "So the question then becomes, since he killed her, what is the legal liability of Maria Ceja (Robles)?"
Tenenbaum said Ceja Robles endured physical and sexual abuse during her relationship with Velarde and in her two prior marriages. Records support the abuse allegations, including 911 calls and medical charts, he said.
Ceja Robles "did the best she could" to tell everyone what happened during eight days of testimony, Tenenbaum said. He said she didn't understand the detectives' questions after her arrest because they spoke English.
Tenenbaum said Ceja Robles, who became hooked on methamphetamine at the hands of Velarde, had no idea he would kill the victim.
"Your job is to look at the evidence and ask yourself, has intent been proven?" Tenenbaum said. "Because right now, it's completely unclear that she had any intent to do anything wrong to Ms. DeCeja."
During his rebuttal, Morse said the prosecution has proven its case and the most difficult decision the jury needs to make is selecting a foreman.
"You know right down to your toes what happened on December 2," Morse said. "She killed Ana whether she put her hands on her throat or not. She's every bit as guilty."
Yanira Granados, 22, the victim's cousin, said she's anxious for the jury to return a verdict and relieved the nearly one-month trial is almost over.
"This has been a test for all of us. How do you keep self-control when you know the person who murdered someone in your family is sitting in front of you?" Granados said. "She (Ceja Robles) only gets emotional when it has to do with her. She doesn't care about Ana."
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.