Commune leader ordered to trial in Kan. death case

The leader of a Kansas commune accused of living off life insurance payouts of its dead members must stand trial on premeditated first-degree murder and several other charges, a judge ruled Thursday.

Daniel U. Perez, 52, is accused in the 2003 death of Patricia Hughes at a compound in Valley Center, a suburb of Wichita, known as Angel's Landing. The 26-year-old woman was initially believed to have accidentally drowned while trying to rescue her 2-year-old daughter from the pool.

Authorities charged Perez after a young woman who was 12 years old at the time of Hughes' death told investigators that Perez, who called himself a seer, had foretold of Hughes drowning a couple of weeks earlier. She testified last week that Hughes knew she was going to die and assured her she would come back from the dead.

Defense lawyers contended there was not enough evidence to put Perez on trial. Sedgwick County District Judge Clark Owens disagreed and scheduled a jury trial for July 30.

Perez did not speak Thursday at his preliminary hearing. The judge entered not guilty pleas on his behalf to multiple charges including murder, rape, sodomy, criminal threat, sexual exploitation of a child and lying on life insurance and auto credit applications.

Although Perez is charged with only one murder count for the 2003 death of Hughes, several members who carried hefty life insurance policies also have died. A 2001 airplane crash near Norris, S.D., killed Mona Griffith, her 12-year-old daughter and her boyfriend. Others include the 2006 death of Brian Hughes, the slain woman's husband, when he was crushed by a car when a jack apparently failed and the 2008 death of Jennifer Hutson in a head-on collision with a dump truck.

"There was no Angel's Landing business. There was a pool of money that was essentially proceeds from these people dying," prosecutor Marc Bennett argued. "That is what Perez lived off of. He doled it out as he saw fit, when he saw fit."

Perez's attorneys challenged the credibility of the three women who testified about the sexual abuse. They said all the women had access to cars and could have left at any time.

Defense attorney Steve Osburn questioned whether the allegedly false income information on life insurance applications and car loans mattered to anybody. He noted testimony that the Wichita car dealership sold 35 or 40 vehicles to the group in about a four-year period, about one vehicle every 40 days. Perez never signed any of the paperwork.

No evidence was presented whatsoever that they defaulted on the loans, he said, adding the dealership was going to sell them a vehicle no matter who put down what on that application because they were going to be back in 40 days and buy another one.

"They are in the business of selling cars; he was buying cars," Osburn told the judge.

But Bennett questioned what would have happened had group members been truthful on those applications — that they were surviving off the death benefits of other people who died off in the group.

"Give me a break, of course it is material," Bennett said. "If it weren't for these false statements, no one would have sold them a car. No one would have sold them life insurance. No one would have had anything to do with these people."