RILEY COUNTY, Kan. (WIBW) -- After deliberating for a little more than three hours on Friday, jurors delivered a guilty verdict and convicted 24-year-old Luis Aguirre of capital murder in the 2009 deaths of 18-year-old Tanya Maldonado and the couple’s 13-month-old son Juan.
In 2009, Aguirre brought Tanya and Juan to Ogden to the apartment where he was living with his new girlfriend, Dulce Mendez. Mendez was stationed at Fort Riley and was deployed to Iraq when the killings took place. Tanya and Juan had been living in Chicago in a homeless shelter and were desperate for support, prosecutors said. Aguirre was also originally from Chicago and was in the National Guard. During training in Alabama, he met Mendez and moved to Ogden to live with her and her 18-month-old son. Prosecutors allege that Aguirre planned the murders and killed Tanya and Juan so he could move on with Dulce Mendez. But the defense says he was trying to help his ex and son get back on their feet and that he never wanted them to die.
Aguirre said on the weekend of September 19 and 20, 2009, he had drill for the National Guard in Chicago and ended up meeting up with Tanya near the mission where she was staying with their son. Aguirre says he wanted to see how she was doing because he knew she was having trouble. He was just going to give her a ride to a friend’s house or relative’s house but she told him she wanted to go with him back to Kansas. He says Tanya wanted to start fresh and find a job and get away from her family and maybe meet a nice guy in the military. Aguirre told her about his current girlfriend, who was deployed. He was going to let Tanya and Juan stay with him for a few days until they found another place to stay.
Aguirre told the investigators that in the midst of an argument and struggle in the kitchen, he covered Tanya’s mouth for five minutes to stop her from yelling and he didn't realize that he was also covering her nose. After she stopped kicking and moving, Aguirre says he thought she had calmed down and let her go. She started spitting up blood and he tried to revive her with chest compressions but she died.
When he went to check on his son so he wouldn't wander into the kitchen and see what had happened with his mother, Aguirre says he found toddler asleep, somewhat hanging off the baby bed. Aguirre says he tucked Juan in tightly and later found him face down on a pillow with a pacifier in his mouth and he could not be revived.
Aguirre told the detectives that his anxiety and fear kicked in and his first reaction was to try to hide what had happened so he drove around for a while not knowing what to do and ended up burying Tanya and Juan. He said the whole situation was an accident and he knew he should have called 911. He insisted that no one helped him and that he didn’t tell anyone else about what happened. He was also adamant that he did not plan the killings and did not know about the spot where he buried the victims ahead of time.
Aguirre's attorneys did not present any witnesses to testify in his defense Friday morning.
During their closing arguments, prosecutors said Aguirre plotted out the murders ahead of time and killed the victims inside his Ogden apartment by blocking their airways. They claim he then tried to cover it up by burying their bodies and disposing of other evidence.
Assistant Riley County Attorney Disney told the jury that premeditation is the "crux of this case" and that the two murders were connected, constituting a common scheme or plan.Throughout his statement, he played different parts of the interviews Aguirre did with police after the bodies of the victim were found. Aguirre changed his story several times when confronted by evidence to the contrary. Disney quoted Aguirre as saying, "Is this even believable? I doubt it." Disney repeatedly asked jurors, "How much weight and credit can you give his version of events?" He said Aguirre's version of events is not credible, consistent or supported by other evidence. When rehashing the victims' injuries according to the testimony of the forensic pathologist who performed their autopsies, Disney said: "Their airways were blocked. Tanya struggled and Juan struggled." He said Aguirre held Tanya's nose long after she quit crying. He told jurors that Aguirre had motive to kill Tanya and Juan and that he had a double life with Dulce Mendez. "He couldn't keep up this charade forever," Disney said.
"Tanya wasn't going away. But it's not just Tanya and getting rid of her. That doesn't solve the problem because there is Juan too," he added. According to the prosecution, Tanya and Juan were a financial obligation Aguirre didn't want to deal with. During the trial, jurors heard emails from Tanya to Aguirre begging him to help support their son and threatening to report him to authorities and take him to court if he didn't provide for the child.
When talking about the likelihood of two young people accidentally dying in the same period of time, Disney said: "That's like someone being eaten by a shark while being struck by lightning while having the winning lottery ticket in their pocket."
Aguirre’s defense team tried to cast doubt in the jurors’ minds by contradicting evidence and testimony that was presented against him throughout his trial. One his attorneys, Tim Frieden, said Aguirre has shown extreme remorse for what happened and was trying to help the victims get back on their feet.
Frieden went through Aguirre's recorded interviews with police and emails with Tanya, showing the times when he had remorse. "No question that this is an emotional thing for him. He has tears... He talks of remorse in these," he said.
Frieden referenced emails where Aguirre mentioned trying to help Tanya like getting her public aid, taking care of Juan and adding the toddler to his health plan. He said that Juan met the criteria for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and brought up how Tanya stated in several emails that the baby had been sick. Frieden said jurors should consider whether the evidence is sufficient to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the deaths constitute a capital murder conviction. He asked them to consider lesser charges and said there was even evidence for a not guilty charge. He told jury they had to consider the case without favoritism according to the law.
The key witness for the prosecution was Dr. Spencer Tomb, a longtime Kansas State University professor and botanist.
Tomb was asked by authorities to examine the shallow grave outside of Ogden where the victims were found on, examining the plant matter found directly under their remains and around the grave site.
Tanya and Juan Maldonado were killed on September 21, 2009 and buried in the early morning hours of September 22, 2009. A hunter discovered the grave roughly a month later on October 25, 2009.
Tomb told the jury during his testimony on Thursday that based on the build up of leaflets at the bottom of the grave, he believes it was dug several days before the victims were buried, remaining open for a "significant" period of time before their bodies were placed inside.
He said that if someone went out and quickly dug a hole and buried something, you would not see a bed of leaves at the bottom like he found under the victims. When asked by the defense if the leaves could have blown into the grave by the wind just before the bodies were placed inside, Tomb said he would have seen more of a mixture of leaves but found mostly leaflets from the limbs of a box elder tree that were directly above grave that fell over time. He estimated that the grave was 4-6 weeks old and that it was most likely open for 3-4 days before the bodies of the victims were buried.
The testimony supports the state’s stance that the murders were premeditated.
Frieden pointed out that in Tomb's original report, his findings were different. But Tomb told the jury that he realized the grave had remained open longer than he originally thought the more he studied the samples that were removed from the site, showing that layers of leaflets had built up over several days.
Aguirre’s sentencing has been set for July 9, 2012 at the Riley County Courthouse. Jurors will be asked to determine whether he should receive the death penalty or life in prison without parole.