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Crime and Courts

Murder Trial Against Valley Center Commune Leader Begins

The leader of a Valley Center commune that prosecutors say lived off life insurance payouts from its dead members faces trial this week for the drowning death of a woman in 2003.

Jury selection begins today in the trial of 55-year-old Daniel Perez for first-degree premeditated murder of Patricia Hughes at the group's compound in Valley Center. Perez allegedly "foretold" Hughes' death weeks earlier.

Witnesses testified that Perez called himself a seer and portrayed him as a domineering leader who kept a tight rein on his young, mostly female followers.

Authorities have investigated several deaths linked to the group, but the Wichita trial will deal only with Hughes's death and other crimes that allegedly occurred while its fewer than a dozen members lived communally in Sedgwick County.

The bizarre case led investigators through a web of false identities and money that stretched through Texas, South Dakota, Missouri, Kansas and Tennessee.

Its members lived together in one large home or in houses in close proximity, and moved from state to state.

They have apparently dispersed since Perez, who had assumed the false identity of Lou Castro, was first arrested in 2010 on identity theft charges and sent to federal prison for two years.

Perez also faces multiple counts of lying on life insurance applications, rape, sodomy, criminal threat, making false statements on auto credit applications and sexual exploitation of a child.