Man pleads guilty to murder of woman found in septic tank

EDINBURG — A man accused of murdering a young woman reported missing since 2004 accepted a plea agreement Tuesday just before a jury was scheduled to be selected for his trial.

Aristeo Garcia Cervantes Jr., 42, plead guilty to the murder of Leona Marie Tollett Johnson, whose bones were found in the summer of 2017 inside a septic tank on his rural Edcouch property, and was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Cervantes’ sentence will run concurrent with a 12-year prison sentence he began serving in May 2016 on a charge of aggravated assault against a family member with a deadly weapon, which was in connection with a November 2015 stabbing of a woman who the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office previously identified as his wife.

The defendant’s decision to accept a plea deal from the Hidalgo County Criminal District Attorney’s Office came after state District Judge Letty Lopez denied his motion to suppress the confession he made to sheriff’s investigators. Had a jury found him guilty, he would have faced between five to 99 years in prison or life.

During the suppression hearing, which lasted from Monday to Tuesday, Cervantes testified that he agreed to give a statement to investigators after they allegedly promised to only charge him with misdemeanor tampering with evidence and not arrest his mother, who had previously housed undocumented migrants at her property. He also testified to asking for an attorney multiple times and being told he did not need one.

Investigator Javier Vargas and Sgt. Francisco Medrano, however, testified that no such deals were made during the July 2017 interrogation and that Cervantes willingly waived his rights to an attorney and to remain silent. He voluntarily confessed to fatally stabbing a woman whose name he did not know more than a decade ago after she attacked him, they said.

When Vargas and Medrano showed Cervantes Johnson’s photo in a photo lineup days after his confession, Cervantes immediately recognized her, Medrano testified, saying, “He knew right away and he was pushing the photo back” so as not to look at it.

Johnson was 21 when she vanished in March 2004, and investigators used DNA from her now-teenage son to positively identify her remains.

“It’s a he said, she said,” Cervantes’ attorney Fernando Mancias told Lopez during the hearing.

There was no audio or video recording of the interrogation, which occurred a little more than a month before state law required that custodial interrogations by law enforcement be electronically recorded.

Assistant District Attorney Ana Liz De Leon-Vargas emphasized that Cervantes signed both a document waiving his Miranda rights in addition to each page of his confession, indicating he had reviewed it for accuracy. De Leon-Vargas also noted that even if the investigators had behaved as Cervantes alleged, such trickery is allowed under the law to produce admissible confessions.

“There’s conflicting testimony and I will find that Mr. Aristeo Cervantes voluntarily made these statements, and he wasn’t coerced and did so by free will,” Lopez told the attorneys after denying the motion to suppress this evidence.

Cervantes will be required to serve at least half of his 40-year sentence before he is eligible for parole, said First Assistant Criminal District Attorney Juan Villescas.

A hearing has been set for Thursday for Johnson’s family members to provide victim impact statements.