The first day of trial for a couple accused of killing a Planada woman and kidnapping her baby began with the prosecution painting them as a pair who wanted a son — and were willing to commit murder to achieve that goal.
Maria Teresa Ceja Robles, 34, and Jose Augustine Velarde, 38, are charged with murder in the Dec. 2, 2010, death of Ana Lila Diaz DeCeja, 26. They also are accused of kidnapping her son, Anthony Ceja-Diaz.
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.
During opening statements Thursday, Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse II told Velarde's jury the couple brought to fruition a plot to kill DeCeja and raise her 2-month-old baby as their own.
Velarde’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Sean Howard, told jurors the district attorney’s opening statement only mentioned some of the testimony they’ll hear during trial.
"And yet, after you have heard all the evidence in the case, you will not be able to say for sure how Ana Diaz died," Howard said. "And you will not be able to say for sure which person is responsible for her untimely death. Jose Augustine Velarde is innocent of the charges filed by the district attorney against him."
Velarde and Robles, face charges of murder, kidnapping, child abuse and making a false report to police. If convicted, they both face life in prison. Morse told jurors Velarde and Robles had been together for three years prior to the homicide. Although both defendants already had children of their own, Velarde wanted to have a son with Robles, his fiance.
But Robles was unable to have more children, Morse said, and she desperately wanted to give Velarde a son.
"The evidence will show this obsession with a male child ultimately led the two of them to carefully plan the murder of Ana DeCeja and the kidnapping of her infant son, Anthony,” Morse said.
Weeks before DeCeja was killed, Robles even propositioned a man she met in south Merced’s Stephen Leonard Park, asking whether he’d steal a baby for $1,500. The man refused, Morse said.
Robles used her friendship to gain DeCeja's trust, Morse said, and lured her to the couple’s home under the guise of looking at knitted scarves. Once DeCeja was inside the home, Velarde put on latex gloves and attacked her, knocking the victim to the floor, based on statements the defendant himself gave to detectives, according to Morse.
"Ana fights for her life, kicking Velarde," Morse said. “But the young mother is no match for the 180-pound farmworker. He apparently manages to pin her hands to the floor with his thighs, while sitting atop her, with his hands on her throat. Velarde later told detectives it took him about 10 minutes to strangle Ana to death."
After killing the DeCeja, Velarde got behind the wheel of the victim’s Chevy Avalanche. Meanwhile, Robles followed him in the couple’s Ford Crown Victoria, with the victim’s body in the trunk and the baby in a car seat, Morse said. The couple abandoned DeCeja’s car off a country road near Snelling.
Driving the Crown Victoria, the couple pulled into an orchard near Snelling, and dumped DeCeja's body. Velarde told detectives he poured gasoline on the body and ignited it, before driving away, Morse said.
A group of farmworkers found the body afterward and notified law enforcement.
The defendants went back to their Planada home, where Velarde changed clothes. Velarde then drove off in the Crown Victoria, and Robles followed in a Chevy Tahoe, Morse said. They bought $10 worth of gas, and pulled into an orchard south of Livingston, where Velarde set the Crown Victoria and the clothes he was wearing that day on fire.
Detectives later found the burned Crown Victoria, Morse said, and matched its tire treads to the tracks left in the ground where DeCeja’s burned body was found.
The Crown Victoria’s tire treads were also an exact match for the tracks found near the victim’s abandoned Ford Avalanche. In addition, detectives obtained video surveillance footage, taken at the Merced Wal-Mart just after 5 p.m. on Dec. 2, showing the couple buying diapers and other baby items for the child.
Robles also had her son call the California Highway Patrol, to make a false report the couple’s Crown Victoria has been stolen. DeCeja’s baby was found on Dec. 7 after he’d been left naked, inside what appeared to be pillowcase in 39 degree weather, on the doorstep of a Le Grand home.
Neighbors called 911. Paramedics responded to the scene and treated the child.
Detectives finally received a break in the case on Dec. 8, 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 Sun-Star gave the information to sheriff’s detectives, who spoke with the tipster. Robles became a person of interest shortly thereafter. “A crack in the dam had appeared,” Morse said.
Detectives learned the burned Ford Crown Victoria had been reported stolen by Robles' son. They also found out Robles had also went to the tow yard “with an adult male” to look at the burned Crown Victoria, after authorities found it.
Morse said that male was later identified as Velarde. The defendant wanted to see the car to ensure “all the evidence was burned,” Morse said.
The pieces quickly "fell together" for detectives, the district attorney said, with Robles’ cell phone records placing her in the area of the homicide scene on Dec. 2.
Detectives served a search warrant at the couple's Planada home, where Velarde was taken into custody.
During a two hour-long interview with detectives, Velarde at first claimed he was at work the day DeCeja was killed. He later admitted DeCeja was at his home, but said she died after tripping and falling on a scarf she’d been wearing.
Despite the "tapestry of lies," Morse said Velarde eventually confessed, telling detectives he strangled DeCeja and dumped the victim's body near Snelling.
"In order for Velarde to get the infant he planned to name after himself, Ana DeCeja had to die," Morse said.
The trial is expected to continue today, with attorneys presenting opening statements to Robles’ jury.
City Editor Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.