Bizarre cult life insurance court case has SD connection

Cult members took out hefty life insurance policies on themselves before suspicious deaths; cult leader faces criminal trial.

Associated Press/June 6, 2012

Wichita, Kansas -- A young mother drowns while seemingly trying to rescue her 2-year-old daughter from a swimming pool at a commune. The little girl's father is later crushed to death by a car when a jack slips.

Then the orphan's legal guardian inexplicably swerves her SUV into an oncoming dump truck and is instantly killed. And two of these deaths were allegedly prophesized by the group's leader, a so-called seer.

Were these random accidents? Or was something more sinister shadowing those living at a central Kansas compound called Angel's Landing?

Today, a judge must decide whether prosecutors presented enough evidence during two days of testimony last week to justify a trial against commune leader Daniel U. Perez.

He is charged with premeditated, first-degree murder in the death of Patricia Hughes, the 26-year-old mother whose death at Valley Center compound near Wichita was initially thought to have been accidental. Closing arguments at the preliminary hearing are expected to be followed by a formal arraignment and pleas.

The 52-year-old man — who for years went by the false identity of Lou Castro — also faces more than 30 counts, including lying on life insurance applications, rape, sodomy, criminal threat, making false statements on vehicle credit applications and sexual exploitation of a child.

Perez has not been charged in the other deaths. Sedgwick County Capt. Greg Pollock has said investigators reviewed all associated deaths, but filed charges in the only death that occurred in their jurisdiction.

Last week's testimony showed commune members took out hefty life insurance policies on themselves and named other group members as beneficiaries. Everyone in the group lived off the payouts when one of them died. A retired insurance salesman testified Perez always directed the amounts and beneficiaries for the policies, but he is not named in any of them.

Hughes had been the beneficiary on a $700,000 life insurance policy taken out by group member Mona Griffith — who was killed in a 2001 plane crash near the South Dakota town of Norris, along with her 12-year-old daughter and her boyfriend. Hughes later took out a $2 million life insurance policy on herself, naming other group members as beneficiaries.

Investigators initially believed Hughes' death was an accidental drowning — despite a coroner's finding showing she also had three blunt force injuries to the head — based on the story told by a 12-year-old girl.

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