Monday, July 10, 2006

BALTIMORE — The last person to see one of three children alive before he was slain in an apartment in 2004 testified yesterday that she saw the children’s uncle and cousin who are accused of the killings sneaking around the complex days before the slayings.

Dana Jones told a jury yesterday that she lived above the Northwest Baltimore apartment where her son’s playmates Alexis Espejo Quezada, 10; Ricardo Solis Quezada Jr., 9; and Lucero Solis Quezada, 8, were strangled, beaten and nearly beheaded on May 27, 2004.

She testified that she saw Policarpio Espinoza Perez, 24, and Adan Canela, 19, the children’s uncle and cousin, respectively, walk toward her as she sat in her car in the alley behind the apartments and disappear around a corner at about 10 p.m. on May 25.

The men sprung from the bushes in the area of the children’s bedroom window minutes after the father of Ricardo and Lucero walked toward the building, Miss Jones testified. The men ran toward her car, and one, whom she identified as Mr. Canela, hid his face as he passed her car while the other, whom she identified as Mr. Perez, waved to her.

She said the men’s behavior was suspicious.

“What they did back there, I don’t know,” she testified yesterday. But, “it startled me because they jumped up and started running.”

Miss Jones said she saw the men two days later at the crime scene and alerted detectives.

Defense attorneys argued yesterday that Miss Jones’ initial description of the men to police was shaky and that press coverage of the case likely influenced her identification of the men.

Court documents show that Miss Jones initially identified Mr. Canela as the one who looked inside her car and said she did not “remember a great deal” about the other man. She also could not provide a police sketch or describe in detail the clothes they wore.

“My reaction is that she did not pinpoint Policarpio Espinoza,” his attorney, Nick Panteleakis, said.

Miss Jones testified that she had complained to maintenance several times about the apartment building’s security door becoming stuck open and that she had warned the children several times to keep it closed.

She choked up as she described seeing Alexis standing in the doorway in a red shirt at about 4:30 p.m. on the day of the slayings. Alexis opened the door as he heard her leaving to pick up her son, and she said the boy did not appear nervous or anxious.

“I’ll never forget it,” Miss Jones told the jury. “I told him ‘Make sure you keep the front door closed so the cicadas won’t come in’ and I told him to ‘Go back into the apartment until your parents get home.’ … He looked fine.”

Though Miss Jones said she did not learn most of the children’s names until after the slayings, she said she had spoken with them on several occasions and had offered to help them with their science-fair projects the next year.

Mr. Panteleakis said jurors will hear new evidence that will point to other potential suspects that the police never have considered.

Last week, the defendants’ relatives testified that the ex-husband of Alexis’ mother, who came illegally to the U.S. just months before the slayings, told family members that they would “cry tears of blood” if she did not come back to him.

“To find out in the middle of the trial that someone made a serious threat [illustrates] what I’ve been saying happened all along: They’ve pinpointed the wrong two guys,” Mr. Panteleakis said.

The trial will resume today.

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