More than two years after a 6-year-old girl was raped and strangled to death in a Rio Rancho home, the young man charged with the crime remains in jail, awaiting trial next year.

Leland Hust.
Albuquerque Journal photo.

Leland Hust, now 23, is charged with intentional child abuse resulting in death and rape of a child younger than 13, both first-degree felonies, in the August 2018 death of Ariana “Jade” Romeo. The girl was found dead, naked from the waist down and bloody in a garage converted into a bedroom in the home she, her mother and Hust shared with a number of other people on Moonstone Drive.

According to 13th Judicial District Court documents, jury selection for Hust’s trial was originally scheduled for Feb. 4, 2020, but was moved back to March and then canceled due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

On March 17, Hust’s attorney Michael L. Rosenfield filed a motion asking for his client to be released into the custody of Hust’s maternal grandmother and her husband, and to be monitored by Sandoval County Pretrial Services. Rosenfield cited Hust’s increased risk of catching COVID-19 at the Bernalillo County Detention Center, where he was being housed because he needed mental-health treatment beyond what Sandoval County Detention Center could provide, according to the motion.

District Judge George Eichwald denied the motion, writing that there was no situation in which the public would be safe with Hust’s release. A jury selection hearing is scheduled for Feb. 9, 2021.

In September, the assistant district attorney prosecuting the case, Nicholas K. Gilbert, filed notice of his intent to seek an aggravated sentence. He named the grounds for the intent as the nature and brutality of the crime, the victim’s young age and his belief that evidence would show Hust meant to kill Romeo.

In the motion for pretrial release, the defense argued the evidence against Hust wasn’t strong.

The written argument against the motion, handled by a different prosecutor, said Hust couldn’t be eliminated as the source of the DNA investigators found in Romeo’s genitals and around the area where she’d been killed.

According to the prosecution, during a phone call from jail he had admitted raping the girl.

According to the motion for Hust’s release, the DNA wasn’t matched to Hust, but he was the only one in the house who couldn’t be eliminated. Rosenfield wrote that a second male’s DNA was found in the same place, but in smaller quantities, and that Hust never confessed.

He also argued that prosecution’s DNA expert couldn’t rule out the DNA coming from a towel or other item Romeo and Hust might have both used in the unsanitary bathroom.

The prosecution contended that Hust had sexual aggressive behavior and impulse-control problems as a juvenile. The defense argued there was no documentation of those issues.

According to the prosecution, the home on Moonstone was very dirty, Hust’s room was particularly unsanitary and he lacked personal hygiene. The argument said Hust’s hygiene had improved since his incarceration, but if he was released, he could return to unsanitary habits, increasing his risk of spreading COVID-19.

The order denying Hust’s release was filed April 20.