The Court of Appeals has upheld the conviction of an Ottawa County woman sentenced to life in prison for hiring a hitman to kill her ex-boyfriend so she could collect more than $1.2 million in benefits.
Maryann Leal Castorena was convicted for her role in the Jan. 2014 beating death of Jose Patricio Hernandez, whose frozen body was found next to his running car at a Park Township apartment complex.
Ottawa County prosecutors say she arranged to have him killed to collect insurance money, offering the hitman $50,000 for his troubles.
The man responsible for the slaying, 21-year-old Anthony Delagarza, is serving a 20 to 40-year term for second-degree murder. He was offered a plea deal in exchange for his testimony.
Castorena appealed her Nov. 2014 conviction, saying jurors should not have been told of a prior arson conspiracy cooked up by the two accused killers that involved a 2012 Nissan Maxima. Delagarza admitted that Castorena hired him to blow up the car with a Molotov cocktail to collect insurance money.
The Appeals Court disagreed, saying the evidence was proper because it showed the pair had a history of working in cahoots.
“Evidence of the prior conspiracy to commit arson was highly relevant in this case,’’ the three-judge panel wrote. “It is clear that (Castorena’s) conspiratorial relationship with Delagarza was a component of the common plan.’’
At trial, Castorena argued that Delagarza committed the murder and was blaming her so he could receive a reduced sentence. She said there was no conspiracy and that she had no involvement in the slaying.
Castorena also claimed that a letter detailing a plan to kill Hernandez was actually notes about a movie script.
An Ottawa County jury determined otherwise. Jurors convicted her of first-degree murder, conspiracy to murder, soliciting a murder and lying to police.
Castorena was sentenced in Dec. 2014 to mandatory life in prison without possibility of parole; she’s being held at the Huron Valley women’s prison in Ypsilanti.
During sentencing, Castorena told the judge: "They make me look like a monster, sir. This was very difficult for me because I've never been in trouble.
"The only ones I have to apologize to here today is my parents, my sisters, my kids, and my husband," she concluded.
The body of Hernandez was found bloodied and buried in the snow. He was bludgeoned with a ball-joint remover made of iron.
Castorena and Hernandez started dating in 2005 and eventually moved in together. He named her as beneficiary of life insurance policies, a 401k account and stock options through work valued at more than $1.2 million.
The policies remained even though Castorena moved to California in July, 2013 and married another man in Nevada without letting Hernandez know.
Two months before the slaying, Castorena returned to Michigan with her new husband. She met with Delagarza several times to discuss the murder, court records show.
She drove Delagarza to the apartment complex the night of Jan. 5, 2014 to carry out the murder; Hernandez, 38, was ambushed as he was leaving for his third shift manufacturing job.
His frozen body was discovered the next day in the Amberwood Apartments complex off 152nd Avenue in Park Township.
Castorena and Delagarza were arrested a few weeks later and charged with lying to police in the homicide investigation; murder charges were authorized four months after the slaying.