Murder trial delayed for week in alleged contract killing

A Riverbank widow and her boyfriend, the couple accused of masterminding a murder-for-hire plot that led to the death of Martin Leon, will not go to trial this week.

A trial for Eved Vireles Romero, 21, was scheduled to begin Monday. That was to be followed by a trial for widow Maria Leon, 42, and her boyfriend Jose Angel Gaona, 29. Next would come a trial for Maria Leon's nephew, Luis Manuel Penaloza, 26.

A plan that called for back-to-back trials was scrapped because Romero on Friday pleaded no contest to first-degree murder.

An attorney for Maria Leon on Monday said he could not proceed immediately to trial, because some of his witnesses are not available. So the three remaining defendants will return to court Monday, when Judge Timothy W. Salter is expected to set new trial dates.

Deputy District Attorney John R. Mayne said trials in February or March are likely.

Maria Leon, Gaona and Penaloza are suspected of lining up a hit man who shot and killed Martin Leon about 5:45 a.m. on April 29, 2004, as he left for work. As part of his plea, Romero admitted that he drove the shooter to the Leon home and pointed out the target.

Maria Leon told authorities that she tried to call off the hit before her husband was killed. She paid the men $35,000 after Martin Leon died, and later wore a wire during a meeting with Gaona and Penaloza, so sheriff's detectives could implicate them in the plot, according to court records.

Maria Leon is held without bail. Gaona and Penaloza are held in lieu of $5 million bail. Romero returns to court Nov. 19 for sentencing.