BERNALILLO  — Emotionless, Leland Hust listened as 13th Judicial Chief Judge George Eichwald sentenced him to 48 years in prison Thursday afternoon.

Hust, 25, was found guilty March 25 on two felony counts in the August 2018 rape and strangulation death of 6-year-old Ariana “Jade” Romeo of Rio Rancho.
Jurors found Hust, who shared the home with Adriana and some family members and was considered by her as an uncle, guilty of child abuse resulting in death, which has a mandatory 30-year prison sentence, and criminal sexual penetration of a child under 13, which has a mandatory 18-year sentence. They reached the verdict after deliberating for about six hours.

Eichwald said he couldn’t find enough adjectives to what he described as a “house of horrors” where the grisly events took place, and it was “probably one of the worst cases I have ever seen.”

In remarks before Eichwald Thursday, District Attorney Chief Deputy Jessica Martinez said Hust had a history of uncontrollable outbursts and “cannot be rehabilitated.

“Anything less than 48 years (behind bars) will put the community at risk when he gets out of prison.”

The DA’s office had several of Ariana’s loved ones to give impact statements, including her mother, who said, “All we have left are pictures and memories … he took everything from her. There are no words to describe the pain.”

Ariana’s father, Charles Romeo, said Hust was the “very definition of a monster” and that his child “was loved by everyone she came in contact with.”

The judge also heard from an aunt, a cousin and Ariana’s stepfather, who said that, “I taught her the best I could about the evil in the world.”

Hust’s defense team countered that the statements about Hust having uncontrollable outbursts and not being a candidate for rehabilitation “have no basis in fact,” and urged the judge to let the sentences run concurrently, so the parole board could give him a chance to be released from prison as soon as 20 years into his sentence, but that “doesn’t mean he will be released.”

That spring trial was the second for Hust, wearing an orange Sandoval County detention Center jumpsuit, a mask and black-rimmed glasses Thursday as he learned his fate.

In June 2021, a jury found Hust not guilty of first-degree murder in the killing. Jurors deliberated 17 hours in that trial, ultimately deadlocked on charges of child abuse resulting in death and criminal sexual penetration of a child under 13 — the charges Hust was convicted of March 25.

The prosecution said Thursday Hust and Ariana, who was excitedly anticipating her first day of first grade, watched the movie “Leprechaun,” an R-rated horror movie with sexual violence, certainly unfit for a 6-year-old. After the movie, he raped her and then strangled or suffocated her, then wrapped her in a sheet and put her in bed.

When Ariana’s mother, Stephanie Romeo, came home from work, she joined her daughter in bed and gave her a goodnight kiss – not realizing her child had been murdered.

District Attorney Barbara Romo said she was satisfied with the sentence, “but it won’t bring Ariana back.”

Next stop: prison. Leland Hust is led out of the courtroom after hearing he’ll be behind bars for more than 40 years. (Herron photo)