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Crime and Courts

Commune Leader Sentenced To Life In Prison For Murder

A man who led a Kansas commune that collected millions of dollars in life insurance payouts from dead members was sentenced Tuesday to life in prison for the drowning death of one of them 12 years ago.

Daniel Perez, 55, stared straight ahead and showed no emotion as he heard his sentence: a life term for murder in Patricia Hughes' 2003 death at the commune's 20-acre compound near Wichita, another life term on a sexual exploitation of a child conviction, and nearly 34 more years behind bars on 26 other counts, including rape.

Perez declined to address the court when given the chance.

Sedgwick County District Judge Joseph Bribiesca ordered Perez's sentences to be served consecutively, so he wouldn't be eligible for parole until he is 120 years old, according to prosecutors.

"The evidence conclusively shows that Mr. Perez used people as mere objects to fulfill his desire for money, sex and a lavish lifestyle," Bribiesca said. "It is just that he serve the maximum sentence."

Prosecutors say Perez sexually abused the young daughters of commune members and devised a scheme to receive life insurance payments after members died.

"It is clear Mr. Perez was the puppet master," Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett told the court.

During the trial, members of the now-defunct commune talked about how they moved from state to state and to Mexico over a 15-year period before they settled at the elaborate compound near Wichita. They testified about being subjected to sexual violence by Perez and about the deaths of six members.

Perez, who went by Lou Castro, was charged only with the death of Hughes, who was 26 when she drowned in the commune's pool. Her death was considered an accident until 2011, when a woman who was 12 when Hughes died told authorities that it had been staged to look accidental. The commune had received $1.24 million from Hughes' life insurance policy.