MERCED — A case so senseless, heinous and disturbing that it rivals a Greek tragedy.
That’s how Judge Brian McCabe on Friday described the tragic story of Ana Lila DeCeja, 26, who was murdered by a Planada couple who also kidnapped her 2-month-old baby.
McCabe on Friday handed down maximum sentences to DeCeja’s killers, Maria Teresa Ceja Robles, 34, and Jose Augustine Velarde, 38.
Robles, who was was convicted by a jury of first-degree murder, kidnapping, child endangerment and solicitation to kidnap, was sentenced to life without parole by McCabe. Velarde, who was convicted of second-degree murder, kidnapping and child abuse, was sentenced to 27-years-to-life in prison.
Friday’s sentencing hearing was somber, as dozens of DeCeja's friends and family members wept in court. Meanwhile, a large photograph of a DeCeja with two of her sons stood on an easel in the courtroom, along with smaller pictures of DeCeja with sons and her husband, Luis Ceja.
Before handing down the sentences, McCabe called Velarde and Robles' crimes a “travesty” that would have made famed horror novelist Stephen King “wince with astonishing terror.” He also reminded the audience he could only sentence the couple to penalties set forth by the law, under the charges they were convicted of.
"Truth is stranger than fiction," McCabe said. "The court has never seen or heard such an accumulation of facts in one case so bizarre, twisted, convoluted and inhumane, and is likely never to again."
Velarde and Robles gave little to no reaction to the judge's words, or the statements by DeCeja’s family members in court. Sitting at the same table, but separated by attorneys, neither Velarde or Robles made eye contact with one another during the hearing.
Rodolfo Diaz, DeCeja's brother, unsuccessfully tried to fight back tears as he spoke to his sister’s killers in court. Diaz said the hardest part is knowing that his sister’s two children will grow up without their mother. “Anthony only had a month to bond with Ana. He will never get a chance to be with her in a way every newborn should be.”
DeCeja’s widower, Luis Ceja, wrote a statement to the court, saying the lives of his family members were ruined by Robles and Velarde. The statement was read in court by Nieves Stavitsky, a member of the district attorney’s Victim/Witness Assistance Program.
“The punishment will never be enough to pay for all the suffering they have caused our family,” Ceja wrote. “They destroyed a family of 10 years. Why did this idiot woman have to come and destroy my family in a second, with the accomplice of her husband?"
Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II said the crime struck at the very "fabric, heart and soul" of the community. Morse said of the approximately 25 homicide cases that he's personally tried, he’d never seen a case where the defendants were so “morally bankrupt."
Morse said the case was also somewhat surprising because neither defendant had a serious arrest record prior to DeCeja's murder. Both defendants also already had children of their own. "These cases are unsettling because they are so difficult to reconcile with what we think we know about crime," Morse said. "It's just a crime that’s very difficult for us to wrap our arms around and understand."
During the hearing, Robles’ attorney Jeffrey Tenenbaum read a statement in court that she'd written. In the statement, Robles said she wished the killing never happened, saying she felt "really bad" for DeCeja's family and children.
"I think I should go to prison for a long time, but not my whole life. I want to have the opportunity and to someday be released and die next to my children," Robles wrote.
Robles and Velarde were convicted in June of the killing. Prosecutors believe DeCeja's murder took place on Dec. 2, 2010.
Morse and Deputy District Attorney Monika Saini argued the couple carried out a plot to kill DeCeja because they wanted to raise the victim’s son as their own. Robles could no longer have children.
The victim knew Robles because their children went to the same school, and they also lived in the same housing camp at one point. Prosecutors believe Robles lured the victim to the couple’s Market Street home, where Velarde strangled her. DeCeja went to the home, thinking she was going to look at scarves Robles had made.
DeCeja’s burned body was found by farmworkers in an orchard near Snelling. Authorities said the baby, Anthony, later was found after Robles and Velarde left him on the doorstep of a Le Grand home.
Merced County Sheriff’s detectives received a break in the case on Dec. 8, 2010 six days after DeCeja’s death. A tipster contacted the Sun-Star to pass on information about a woman who had approached a friend in Stephen Leonard Park and had asked him to steal a baby for $1,500, Morse said.
The pieces of the case eventually fell together, resulting in the arrests of Robles and Velarde. During a two hour-long interview with Merced County Sheriff’s detectives, Velarde at first claimed he was at work the day DeCeja was killed. He later admitted DeCeja was at his home, but claimed she died after tripping and falling on a scarf she’d been wearing.
Velarde eventually confessed to detectives that he strangled DeCeja and dumped the victim's body near Snelling.
The couple were tried together, but separate juries were selected to deliberate the cases against each defendant. Some jurors in Velarde's trial said they convicted him of second degree murder because they weren't sure which defendant strangled DeCeja -- although there were convinced Velarde knew of the plot to commit murder and kidnapping.
Jeffrey Tenenbaum represented Robles in the trial, while Deputy Public Defender Sean Howard represented Velarde. Both defendants pointed the finger at one another during trial.
Velarde will be eligible for parole after serving about 25 years in prison, while Robles will ultimately die behind bars.
However, Morse said it’s highly unlikely that Velarde will ever be a free man. "I would fully expect that Luis and his children will be following this case as long as Mr. Velarde is in custody and would go to any parole board and say that this man should never be released."
City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.