ADEL, Ia. - "I love you" were among the last words that Lourdes Flor De Leake cried out to her boyfriend as he struck her with a machete, an Iowa State Patrol sergeant testified Thursday in a Dallas County courtroom.
Sgt. David Saldivar recounted details of the killing that Carlos Hernandez-Ventura told him during an emergency room interview after he'd turned himself in to Illinois police. Hernandez-Ventura, 25, is on trial on first-degree murder charges for the Oct. 29 deaths of Leake, 34, her teenage daughter and their elderly landlord.
Defense attorneys representing Hernandez-Ventura have admitted that he killed all three with a machete inside a small Perry home where they all lived. But the defense maintains he was ordered to carry out the killings by Leake's estranged husband.
Investigators called as witnesses by prosecutors, however, have testified that no evidence was found to support that theory.
Saldivar helped an Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agent interview Hernandez-Ventura at a hospital in Morrison, Ill. After the slayings, Hernandez-Ventura drove in his girlfriend's Honda Pilot to the town 13 miles across the border from Clinton, Ia., where it ran out of gas, Saldivar testified. He was sent to the hospital to translate the conversation between the DCI agent and Hernandez-Ventura, who is a Spanish speaker.
From the emergency room, Hernandez-Ventura told the agent and sergeant that he attacked all three victims with the weapon from behind, Saldivar said.
Hernandez-Ventura told them the attacks started in a bedroom that he and Leake rented from Juan Jimenez Tejada, a regular at the Mexican restaurant in Perry where Leake worked. He admitted that he struck Leake in her head and neck. The mother of three raised her hands as he delivered the blows. He said that Leake said, "I love you, why are you doing this?" Saldivar said.
Assistant Dallas County Attorney Sean Wieser in an opening statement on Tuesday said that one of Leake's hands was cut off in the attack.
Next, Hernandez-Ventura said that he moved to a kitchen where police and medics later found Tejada. The 78-year-old man died in a hospital days later. Hernandez-Ventura told Saldivar and the agent that Tejada had not realized what had happened in the other room, the sergeant told jurors.
"He said that Juan hadn't noticed the attack in the bedroom," he said. "He used the same machete and attacked him from the rear as well."
The last person that Hernandez-Ventura admitted to killing was Leake's daughter, 14-year-old Melany Barraza, Saldivar said. He told the investigators that Barraza had been in the shower during the assaults on her mother and Tejada, but the two met face-to-face in a hallway area of the home, he said.
Hernandez-Ventura said he struck the teenager after she turned away from him, Saldivar said.
Saldivar told the jury that Hernandez-Ventura said he was ordered to commit the killings by Leake's estranged husband, Daniel Leake. The boyfriend told Saldivar and the agent that Leake wanted his wife and stepdaughter killed because Lourdes Flor De Leake had learned that he was a narcotics dealer, the sergeant said. Hernandez-Ventura also said that he felt conflicted about the plans and said he loved Leake, Saldivar said.
"I recall him saying ... he had cried throughout the night just knowing that he had to do this," the sergeant said.
Defense attorney Michael Adams told jurors on the opening day of witness testimony that Hernandez-Ventura has been consistent in his claims to law enforcement that Daniel Leake, who has never been charged in the case, ordered the killings and threatened to kill both Hernandez-Ventura and members of his family in Virginia and El Salvador if he did not do it. But DCI special agent Don Schnitker testified Tuesday that probes of Leake's background and interviews with the husband turned up no evidence that he sold drugs or was otherwise involved.
Wieser, one of two prosecutors on the case, has told jurors that there may never be a "good explanation" for what caused Hernandez-Ventura to attack the victims. Another witness testified that they had all lived together in the Perry house for approximately a month before the deaths.
Saldivar was the first witness called by prosecutors Thursday, the third day of witness testimony and evidence presentation in the case. Jurors also heard testimony from two DCI agents, a criminalist and an assistant medical examiner who worked on the case. The trial is expected to last approximately eight days.