- Associated Press - Thursday, February 12, 2015

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - The leader of a Kansas commune that lived off the life insurance payouts of its dead members took the stand at his murder trial Thursday to deny he killed any of them.

Daniel U. Perez, 55, is charged with first-degree premeditated murder in the 2003 drowning death of 26-year-old Patricia Hughes at Angels’ Landing, the group’s compound in the Wichita suburb of Valley Center. He faces 38 counts that also include rape, sodomy, criminal threat, lying on life insurance applications, making false statements on credit applications and sexual exploitation of a child.

Prosecutors at trial have called witnesses who testified about the group’s wanderings over a 15-year span that crossed several states and Mexico, marked by sexual violence and the deaths of six people. Perez, who used the false identity of Lou Castro, is charged only with Hughes’ death.

Investigators initially believed Hughes drowned while trying to rescue her 2-year-old daughter from a swimming pool. But in 2011, a woman who had been 11 years old at the time of Hughes’ death told investigators the drowning had been staged.

The woman, whom The Associated Press isn’t identifying because she says she is a victim of sexual assault, has said Perez and Hughes told her to wait with Hughes’ daughter in a shop office. She said she heard a splash and a scream, and that Perez’s forearms were wet and he was out of breath. She testified he told her to wait 20 minutes before going to the pool and getting into it with the toddler. The woman also said he told her to then call the police and tell investigators Hughes fell and hit her head while trying to rescue her daughter.

But when Perez took the stand he told jurors that he was not at the compound when Hughes died, and that the girl was distraught and blamed herself for not being able to save Hughes. He claimed that the day after Hughes’ death, he tried to comfort the girl by telling her he could “bend time” and go back to that day,

“I am going to bend time, I am going to be with Trish and I am going to try to save her - so if I can’t save her, it is my fault,” Perez testified he told the girl.

His version is that he took the girl back to the pool area and put her and Hughes’ 2-year-old daughter in the shop office while he cleaned some vomit near the pool. He said the screech she heard came from turning on the water and that his arms were wet from hosing off the concrete.

Perez told jurors he knew he couldn’t bend time, but told that to the girl because she was blaming herself to the point of wishing she was dead.

On the stand, Perez also disputed that he has ever claimed to be a seer with magical powers as numerous others have testified. He contended any sex was consensual, and tried to shift the blame at times to others. He also claimed a beating in Texas, shortly after he pleaded guilty there to child sex crimes, caused him to have amnesia for years about his true identity.

On cross examination, Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett asked him whether it was correct that he saw an opportunity recruited women who had teenage daughters by telling them he was special, a seer and a savior. Perez denied it.

Bennett asked Perez whether he had benefited from the millions of dollars in life insurance payments made to other group members, money that was shared communally.

“I don’t know where the money came from,” Perez replied.

Bennett then asked him whether the women were the ones with the money, the ones with the final say. Yes, Perez replied.

Both the prosecution and defense completed presenting their evidence Thursday. Closing arguments are Tuesday.

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