CHIHUAHUA, Mexico – Cynthia Kiecker says she and her Mexican husband stood out as “kind of the hippies of Chihuahua,” a conservative northern Mexico city where cowboy hats and boots are the norm.
A native of Bloomington, Minn., Kiecker ran a boutique with her husband. Signs inside the now-vandalized store advertise tarot-card readings, dreadlock weaving and faith healing with stones. Her husband, Ulysis Perzabal, a musician, had waist-long hair – until it was shorn by police.
The couple says being different landed them in jail for the murder of 16-year-old Viviana Rayas. They have been accused of Satanism, and say they were tortured into confessing to the killing.
Even her father, Jose Cerilo Rayas, says the prosecution’s case is “full of inconsistencies.”
“The family has serious doubts that police have arrested the real culprits,” he said.
Viviana disappeared in Chihuahua on March 16, the latest in a wave of disappearances of young women in the city since 2000. Police came under pressure from her father, a union leader, to find her.
Days after her father held a demonstration demanding action, police found the girl’s decayed body in a vacant lot May 28.
Two days later, police pounded on Kiecker’s door with a sledgehammer.
“They put a bag over my head. I almost couldn’t breath,” Kiecker says of her arrest.
After bundling her into a van, she says “they took me into a room and tried to stretch me out on a cot, spread-eagle, but somebody said ‘No,’ and somebody else said, ‘give her some shocks on her breasts.’ “
“They poured water on my shirt to make the electric shocks work better. They said, ‘You dirtbag, you know we can kill you, don’t you?’”
Kiecker says she signed a confession after hearing her husband’s screams from an adjoining room. Both were charged with homicide, which carries a 50-year maximum sentence.
Police deny the torture allegations, but U.S. consular personnel who saw Kiecker a week after the arrest say she still had a bruise on her left arm and other injuries. They have requested an investigation.
Prosecutors cite the testimony of three witnesses who have said Viviana attended satanic-style parties at the couple’s home. Kiecker and her husband say they don’t remember ever having met the girl.
According to prosecutors, Viviana passed out after taking drugs and Kiecker killed her with a blow to the head because her husband paid too much attention to the girl.
Police offer a choice of two possible murder weapons – both metal bars found in the couple’s home – but no physical evidence links either to the crime.
Her father says Viviana didn’t know the suspects and didn’t even drink beer, much less take drugs.
In testimonies they later claimed were extracted under torture, two friends of Kiecker’s implicated her in the crime, and described satanic rituals at the couple’s home.
Court records offer conflicting descriptions of what happened: the couple killed or burned chickens, killed goats and drew circles on the floor, performed pre-Hispanic rituals and worshipped a snake figure, or dressed in black robes – another witness said white robes – while voicing incantations in Latin or another language.
“I made it all up,” said one witness, Manuel Lopez Dominguez, a 47-year-old artist. Police “wrapped a towel around my neck, and I was beginning to choke to death. … They said I had to go along with the story.”
Jorge Zuniga, state investigative police coordinator, denies that.
“These three witnesses came forward voluntarily,” Zuniga said. “I don’t know of any witnesses who have been tortured.”
Zuniga concedes that state police have yet to perform DNA tests on Viviana’s corpse, or on a single strand of hair found in the van supposedly used to dump the girl’s body.
Amnesty International has reported torture is often used in Mexico to extract confessions. It documented one case in Chihuahua where a policeman was charged with planting a photograph at the scene of a woman’s killing to incriminate a suspect.
Viviana’s father says it may have been easier for police to target Kiecker and her husband than search for a potential serial killer moving south.
Police “look for a profile: people who maybe dress funny or look strange, so that people will say, ‘Yes, that must be them,’” he said.