Wife, boyfriend head to trial

Stanislaus County Sheriff's Crime Analyst Peggy McNally stands in front of a home in Riverbank where Martin Leon, 20, was found dead in the driveway on April 29, 2004. (Bee file photo 2004)
Stanislaus County Sheriff's Crime Analyst Peggy McNally stands in front of a home in Riverbank where Martin Leon, 20, was found dead in the driveway on April 29, 2004. (Bee file photo 2004) (Adrian Mendoza / The Modesto Bee)

A Riverbank family's secrets will be on display when the case of the late Martin Leon, a man who had a son with his sister-in-law and allegedly had a sexual relationship with his stepdaughter, comes to trial in Stanislaus County Superior Court.

His widow and her boyfriend are suspected of masterminding a murder-for-hire plot that led to the death of Leon, who was shot and killed as he left his home in the Crossroads subdivision in Riverbank early on a Thursday morning more than three years ago.

Maria Leon is accused of initiating the hit, and she told authorities that Jose Angel Gaona failed to call off the dirty deed after she tried to pull out of the conspiracy.

Her nephew, Luis Manuel Penaloza, is suspected of lining up the hit man and later upping the agreed-upon price of $30,000. An acquaintance, Eved Vireles Romero, was only 17 when he admittedly drove the shooter to Martin Leon's home on Etherington Court, then pointed out the target.

And the alleged triggerman, who is referred to as "Negro" in court papers, never was found.

Romero pleaded no contest to first-degree murder Friday and faces 25 years to life in prison. Maria Leon and Gaona are scheduled for trial today. A trial for Penaloza, who has been split off from the others, will follow.

In the meantime, the Leons' six children, ages 6 to 21, can do little more than wait and watch. The younger siblings are being raised by their oldest brother, an engineering student at California State University, Stanislaus. Eric Leon, 16, said they hope their mom can come home again.

"Right now, we're just there for my mom, and we understand what she did," he said. "We're trying to get her out, and we don't hate her."

Eric said he misses his father, who supervised fieldworkers in almond and walnut orchards in Escalon and owned three homes. But he also recalled his father's temper, saying it sometimes left his children walking on eggshells.

He said his father liked to brag about cheating on his wife, showing his workers pictures of the women he saw on the side. It all got back to Maria Leon, Eric said, because she worked in the fields, too.

The Leon children did not suspect their mother on April 29, 2004, when three shots woke them about 5:45 a.m. Maria Leon was scared and crying, her son recalled, her eyes bulging. Martin Leon, 40, was dead in the driveway, his body lying near his yellow pickup truck.

Months later, someone from Martin Leon's side of the family reported suspicions about Maria Leon to the Sheriff's Department. She told all when questioned, then wore a wire during a meeting with Gaona and Penaloza, according to court records.

Maria Leon told the authorities she had been dating Gaona for a year, adding that he and Penaloza offered to kill her husband for $30,000. That was in February 2004, two months before Martin Leon's death, shortly after the Leon family moved from Escalon to a larger home in Riverbank.

Changed her mind?

About two weeks before the shooting, the family returned from a trip to Martin Leon's hometown, Morelia, Mexico, where Maria and Martin Leon had a big fight.

Maria Leon told police she was mad at her husband because he beat up one of their sons. She said Gaona called her two days before the shooting, when she told Gaona that she had changed her mind about the killing and wanted to end their relationship.

Gaona allegedly told her that Martin Leon wouldn't make it past the next day if she did not see him, according to court records.

A week after the shooting, Penaloza met with Maria Leon and demanded $35,000, $5,000 more than the amount they had talked about. He also demanded that Maria Leon forgive a $12,000 debt for a Dodge Durango that Penaloza had bought from Martin Leon.

Maria Leon scrambled to find the money. According to police reports, she ran up a tab on her credit cards and turned over money from two rental homes she owned with her husband. A few weeks later, Penaloza demanded $10,000 more so that Gaona could get his cut. Maria Leon refinanced her home.

Deputies chase two men

On Feb. 25, 2005, Maria Leon wore a wire so that police could record a meeting she had with Gaona and Penaloza, in the parking lot of O'Brien's Market in Riverbank.

The men agreed to do another job for $40,000, said they wouldn't raise their price this time and promised that Maria Leon could call off the hit if she changed her mind.

Sheriff's deputies descended upon them after Gaona and Penaloza took a $5,000 down payment from Maria Leon. The men fled in a late-model Nissan Altima, but they were stopped near Kentucky Avenue and Claus Road.

Gaona was arrested in the car; Penaloza fled on foot but was caught a block away. Authorities found 3.44 grams of methamphetamine and 3.01 grams of cocaine in the car, according to court records.

New details about the alleged conspiracy emerged when detectives questioned Gaona and Penaloza, who were fieldworkers from Oakdale.

Penaloza told authorities that Romero, of Olivehurst, was paid $3,000 to drive the shooter to Martin Leon's house. A detective found Romero, who had worked for Martin Leon in Escalon. Romero said he knew the shooter, "Negro," only by his street name.

Attorneys representing Maria Leon and Romero said investigative reports they received from the district attorney's office suggest that the shooter may be incarcerated in another state.

Defense: Battered woman

A prosecutor declined to comment about the name or location of "Negro," but confirmed that the case will go forward without the shooter. "We would like to catch the shooter," said Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne. "We would like to prosecute the shooter."

Maria Leon, 42, is being held without bail. Gaona, 29, and Penaloza, 26, each are being held on $5 million bail. Romero will be sentenced Nov. 19.

Defense attorney Preciliano Martinez, who represents Penaloza, convinced the court to try his client separately. Martinez could not be reached for comment. Mayne said the admissability of statements the defendants made against each other prompted the split, but he declined to elaborate.

The court rejected defense attorney Matthew Yeoman's request that Gaona get a separate trial. Yeoman declined to comment.

Defense attorney Robert Forkner, who represents Maria Leon, said the relationship between his client and her husband is the centerpiece of the case.

He plans to tell the jury about a son Martin Leon had with his wife's sister, an alleged relationship Martin Leon had with a daughter his wife had from another relationship, and rape allegations that were lodged against Martin Leon but never proven.

He said his client is a battered woman who acted in the heat of passion, not a coldblooded murderer.

"Every woman has a breaking point," Forkner said.

Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at sherendeen@modbee.com or 578-2338.