Three years after their arrest, Monica Diaz and Michael Naranjo told jurors Tuesday how their obsessive relationship as teenagers led to the fatal stabbings of four members of the young woman's family in their Pico Rivera home.
The testimony came in the trial of Diaz, 20, who faces four counts of murder in the slaying of an uncle and three cousins, relatives who had taken in Diaz when she was a child.
Diaz's former boyfriend, Naranjo, 20, testified that Diaz had nothing to do with the killings. Naranjo pleaded guilty to the murders in October and will spend the rest of his life in prison. Prosecutors allege that Naranjo stabbed Diaz's uncle, Richard Flores, 42, and his children, Richard Jr., 17, Sylvia, 13, and Matthew, 10 -- and contend that Diaz also was responsible.
During questioning by defense attorney Richard Everett, Naranjo said he had started thinking about killing people about three years before he met Diaz. He said the idea for the murders originated when Diaz said she feared that her aunt and uncle, Sylvia and Richard Flores, would get a divorce and break up the family. Naranjo said he then came up with the idea of a staged burglary to scare the family into staying together.
But about three weeks before the burglary, Naranjo said, he made up his mind that he was going to kill the family without telling Diaz.
"Did you lie to her?" Everett asked.
"Yes," Naranjo responded.
"Are you telling this jury that you alone are responsible," Everett asked.
"Yes," Naranjo responded.
Asked why he wanted to kill the family, Naranjo testified, "I don't think there was a set reason. There was no personal dislike.... It was just something that was my choice ... something in my head."
Naranjo pleaded guilty to four counts of murder and one of attempted murder -- the same charges facing Diaz -- and was sentenced to four consecutive life terms. Both defendants were under 18 at the time of the slayings, sparing them the death penalty.
Diaz followed Naranjo to the witness stand and denied a role in the slayings. She said she was hiding in the bathroom in the early morning of July 21, 2000, when the murders took place, and got her first hint of the killings when she saw Naranjo.
"He was covered from head to toe in blood," Diaz testified. "He was breathing hard, like he'd run a great distance. When he asked for help, I thought something was wrong with him."
Diaz and Naranjo, once inseparable as love-struck teens, avoided looking at each other during the courtroom proceedings Tuesday in Norwalk. They averted their eyes when Naranjo was escorted past Diaz on his way to the witness stand.
Diaz, dressed in a white shirt and black pants, her long dark hair neatly pulled back, told jurors how her mother died when she was 3 years old; for a time she was shuttled between an abusive grandmother and the family of her mother's sister, Sylvia Flores. When she was in fourth grade, she and her half-sister, Laura Reta, moved in permanently with the Flores family. She began calling her aunt and uncle Mom and Dad, she said.
"They were family," she said.
Diaz said she was closest to the youngest daughter, Sylvia, with whom she shared a room.
"Did you ever think about killing your family?" asked defense attorney Louis Sepe.
"No, I did not," said Diaz in a sober tone that she maintained throughout her 50 minutes of testimony.
She described her relationship with Michael Naranjo as "very intense, at times obsessive."
"Was Michael protective of you?" Sepe asked.
"Very," she answered. "Just walking down the hall at school, he didn't like anyone bumping into me."
Diaz said that it wasn't until months after their friendship began in October 1998 that she noticed Naranjo's interest in serial killers and torture. She said she thought his extensive knife collection was "weird -- but a hobby" and that a letter to her about killing people "was just talk."
Sepe asked Diaz to explain her March 1999 letter to Naranjo in which she talks about becoming an assassin.
She testified that that letter was written to stoke Naranjo's interest in her.
"In February 1999, I expressed a desire to have a romantic relationship, but Michael said he didn't want to ruin our friendship.... I expressed an interest in anything Michael was interested in to have a romantic relationship."
But Diaz said she didn't think Naranjo was truly interested in killing people. "It was just words," she said.
Shortly after an exchange of letters, Diaz testified, their relationship became romantic.
In his cross-examination, prosecutor Kevin McCormick asked Naranjo about several letters that Naranjo and Diaz wrote to each other in which they discussed being a married couple who would murder people.
McCormick quoted one letter in which Diaz wrote: "We should do something that day and go kill some people. I just have to do something crazy real soon, 'cause if I don't I might have to hurt the people" I care about.
When asked if he and Diaz had "discussed" killing people, Naranjo said no.
Diaz's testimony continues today.
Flores' wife, Sylvia, who is Diaz's aunt, was wounded but survived the attack. Flores' daughter, Esperanza, 22, and Monica's half-sister, Laura Reta, were not harmed.