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Man cleared of teen mother's murder

Posted: Wednesday, December 3, 2008 12:00 am

Jeremy Roebuck The Monitor

EDINBURG — Jurors cleared a Weslaco waiter Wednesday of involvement in the 2006 abduction and slaying of a teen mother.

The panel acquitted Juan Tello Hinojosa, 38, after one of the most bizarre murder trials Hidalgo County has seen in years.

Juggling additional allegations of incest, child rape and a defense theory that a key witness - a 15-year-old girl - was the actual perpetrator of the crime, the jury ultimately found Hinojosa guilty of a lesser offense, deciding that he played only a minor role in the plot that left 16-year-old Aida Mae "Mona" Rodriguez dead.

"He's been adamant about his innocence since the very beginning," defense attorney Carlos Garcia said. "He's very, very happy but feels he's been held wrongfully for the past two years."

Prosecutors alleged Hinojosa helped two other men kill Rodriguez two years ago to cover up a dark family secret.

The teen mother, who dated one of the other suspects shortly before her death, walked in on her boyfriend raping one of his then 13-year-old relatives, they said.

That man - Samuel Villarreal, 40 - pleaded guilty in July to kidnapping, beating and fatally shooting Rodriguez and then burning her body. Her charred corpse was found Nov. 28, 2006, in a sugar cane field south of Donna.

Andres Lopez, an Hidalgo County assistant district attorney, argued throughout the nine-day trial that Hinojosa should also be convicted of murder because he assisted Villarreal in the slaying.

CONFLICTING STORIES

But Hinojosa, a Golden Corral waiter, had maintained his innocence since his arrest two years ago.

He first came under suspicion when the alleged 13-year-old rape victim told sheriff's deputies she was present while he and Villarreal kidnapped and assaulted Rodriguez.

As she took the stand last week, the girl told jurors she initially kept silent about the murder because she feared Villarreal would kill her. He openly plotted Rodriguez's death for days leading up to the crime in Hinojosa's presence, she said.

"He kept saying Mona had to die," she testified Nov. 24, with a dead-eyed expression and monotone delivery.

It is The Monitor's policy not to identify victims of sex crimes. The girl's name and relationship to Villarreal have been withheld to protect her identity.

The girl - now 15 - has since had Villarreal's child and is currently being held in juvenile detention because she refused to comply with a subpoena ordering her to testify at Hinojosa's trial.

Hinojosa's lawyers, however, repeatedly argued that the teenage rape victim had implicated their client to mask her own involvement in Rodriguez's death.

During closing arguments Wednesday, defense attorney Garcia suggested the girl plotted the murder because she viewed Rodriguez as a romantic rival for Villarreal's affection.

"We all agree that (the rape victim) was in a tough position," he said. "But if anyone had a motive to get rid of Mona, it was (her)."

No physical evidence presented at trial linked Hinojosa to Rodriguez's murder.

The 15-year-old and her aunt - Hinojosa's ex-girlfriend - were among the only witnesses to place him at the crime scene. Both had reasons to lie, Garcia said.

And perhaps most damning to the state's case, Villarreal told prosecutors shortly after admitting his own guilt that his teenage rape victim had pulled the trigger on Rodriguez. He claimed Hinojosa had not participated in the murder.

The rape victim has never been charged or identified as a suspect in Rodriguez's death.

SAGA ENDING

With the case hinging on a few key witnesses, the verdict seemed likely to be a one-way-or-the-other decision. Jurors would either find Hinojosa guilty on all counts or clear him completely.

Despite acquitting the waiter of kidnapping and murder charges, however, the jury found him guilty of the lesser charge of unlawful restraint.

The decision suggests the panel may have been conflicted in the jury room, Garcia said.

 "The decision is supposed to be unanimous, so this may have been a compromise verdict," he speculated. "But that's just reading the tea leaves. I don't know. I wasn't in the room."

Hinojosa must now wait until Friday to begin the punishment portion of his trial.

Villarreal is currently serving a 60-year prison sentence for his role in Rodriguez's death.

Sheriff's deputies have accused a third man - Mario Luna - of involvement in Rodriguez's murder, but he remains a fugitive and is believed to be hiding out in Nuevo Progreso, Tamps.

The information on this Defense Attorneys & Lawyers / Law Firm website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this or associated pages, documents, comments, answers, emails, or other communications should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. The information on this website is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing of this information does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.

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