5 years on, killer keeps where he hid wife, children secret

This Sept. 21, 2015 photo shows confessed killer Luis Toledo entering a courtroom at the Volusia County Courthouse in DeLand, Fla. Toledo admitted to killing his wife and two children five years ago. (David Tucker/The Daytona Beach News-Journal via AP)

DELTONA, Fla. (AP) — The crime continues as the killer, locked away in state prison, holds the secret that twists like a knife in the soul of a grandmother agonizing over the missing bodies of her daughter and two grandchildren.

Luis Toledo is less than a year into his three consecutive life prison sentences on the fifth anniversary Tuesday of the day he killed his wife, Yessenia Suarez, 28, and her two children, Thalia Otto, 9, and Michael Elijah Otto, 8, in their home at 317 Covent Gardens Lane.

The killings and the disposal of the bodies were done in the darkness of the early morning of Oct. 23, 2013.

And despite one of the biggest local law enforcement searches ever, covering about 90 square miles across Volusia and Seminole counties and including the help of out-of-state volunteers, the bodies of the mother and children have not been found.

Toledo, now 36, vowed never to reveal what he did with the bodies.

The children's grandmother, Felicita Nieves Perez, 54, vows never to stop looking.

"If it wasn't for God, you know, honestly speaking, if it wasn't for God I would not be making it through this long," Nieves Perez said, stopping to hold back tears during a recent interview. "I still have hope that one day God will guide somebody to where they are or Luis will speak up. Once he repents for what he did he might decide to tell us where they are at."

Nievez Perez is marking the anniversary of her family's murder and disappearance with a gathering next to a park-and-ride lot across from the McDonald's at 410 Deltona Blvd. It is near Exit 108 of Interstate 4. She picked the spot because there is a lot of traffic there. She calls it a gathering of "awareness" in hopes of making people aware of cases in which loved ones remain missing.

But Nieves Perez says finding them won't make the pain go away.

"I'm not going to say once they are found there's going to be closure," she said. "My life totally changed five years ago. It will never, never be the same."

But she carries on with the memories. She keeps large pictures of her daughter and her two grandchildren on the wall of her home in Volusia County. She moved from her previous home but does not want the city where she lives published because she fears for her safety.

"As far as me, I keep going day by day. Every day when I wake up it is another day. I'm hoping that my family will be found, " she said. "I still cry every day."

An unlikely couple

That matrimony would follow the meeting between Toledo and Suarez at a 2009 street festival in Orange County seemed unlikely. But Toledo made himself out to be a protector. He moved in with her three months later and they married on New Year's Day in 2011.

Suarez was goal oriented and career minded, a working mother with two young children. Toledo was a convict who served time in state prison under an alias.

At one point he was a violent state leader of the Latin Kings street gang.

Toledo once held a man down while another gang member used a hot pan to burn off the victim's gang tattoo. Toledo was interested in mixed-martial arts. His nickname was "Semi" because he punched like a truck.

On Oct. 23, 2013, Suarez was just months away from a bachelor's degree in psychology from Rollins College. She was a high-achieving student. Her degree would have been awarded magna cum laude.

Suarez also worked at American K9 in Lake Mary, a company that provides dogs to the military and police.

Toledo remained home and became responsible for caring for the children, making sure they ate and finished their homework. Toledo also went to school with plans to become a barber.

But the marriage hit rough times at least in part because Suarez felt that Toledo was neglecting his duties at home. He spent too much time playing video games.

As the marriage soured, Suarez began an affair with Kevin Dredden, a married coworker at American K9 Solutions. Toledo grew suspicious and placed a spy device on her phone and discovered the affair. In a rage he drove to her workplace in Lake Mary on Oct. 22, 2013, where he angrily confronted her. Someone called police. He left before an officer arrived.

Suarez drove with her two children to her mother's house that night. Toledo also went there and the two talked things over and agreed to end their marriage. Toledo left the house. Then Toledo did something. He turned off his cellphone.

Nieves Perez tried to convince her daughter to remain at her house. But the daughter said she wanted to sleep in her own bed and took her two children to the home she shared with Toledo, about a block away. That's the last time the grandmother saw her daughter and grandchildren.

About 1 a.m. Suarez finished speaking with Dredden, who had called to see how she was doing. About 6 a.m. Toledo knocked on the window of his neighbor Tyshawn Jackson's bedroom asking for help in moving Suarez's car.

It was between those hours that Toledo committed the murders and apparently put the three bodies into the trunk of his wife's car then drive them somewhere.

Authorities would later find some sand in her car but it was too common to be of any help.

"I snapped"

Jackson testified at Toledo's murder trial how he had followed in Toledo's Saturn while Toledo drove his wife's Honda to a shopping center in Seminole County. Jackson said he drove up as Toledo was wiping down the car. Toledo put some items in the Saturn, got behind the wheel and drove behind an apartment complex in Seminole County. Jackson told investigators Toledo threw some things in a dumpster before driving back to Deltona.

Jackson also told police Toledo said, "I snapped."

Investigators went to the dumpster and found the trunk mat for Suarez car and a pair of Toledo's boots. They found a drop of the little girl's blood on one of Toledo's boots. They also found a little of her blood on the trunk mat. Back at the family house in Deltona they found traces of the little girl's blood in the master bathroom.

But that's all they have found of the mother and her two children.

Toledo at first told Volusia County Sheriff's Office investigators he didn't know where his family was. But his demeanor changed after Volusia County Sheriff's Office Detective Sgt. A.J. Pagliari told Toledo investigators he had been seen driving his wife's car.

Red flags also went up when Pagliari asked, "Do you think that your wife and children are alive?" Toledo's answer was, " 'I feel their alive.' It wasn't, 'Yeah, they're alive. What are we doing here? You need to be out there searching and I want do do everything that I can.'

"If you had seen them, truly seen them, when you left the house after the argument, like you said you did, then the answer should have been, 'Well, they're definitely alive,' " Pagliari said.

Toledo eventually admitted to killing his wife with a strike to her throat but he made it sound like he had lashed out as if in self-defense and killed her unintentionally. And he tearfully blamed the children's death on his neighbor, Jackson. He broke down as he claimed that Jackson killed the children with a hatchet to eliminate them as witnesses.

Investigators and prosecutors discounted that saying Toledo was lying. Pagliairi testified at trial that Toledo had killed them all.

"Luis can take responsibility for his wife because he feels wronged by her," he said.

He can't admit to the children, the investigator added.

"You don't brutally murder young people and people that you said you cared about and built bonds with, so it's easy to place that on Tyshawn, because that is the most heinous of heinous," Pagliari testified.

10-2

Because of pre-trial publicity the case was moved to St. Augustine. It took four years for the case to go to trial. At the end, the jury deliberated a day before finding Toledo guilty of second-degree murder in Suarez's death and two counts of first-degree murder in the children's slayings.

After a break in the trial, the penalty phase followed with prosecutors Mark Johnson and Ryan Will focused on convincing the jurors that Toledo deserved death for killing the children. Toledo's team of three lawyers, Jeff Deen, Michael Nielsen and Michael Nappi, argued among other things that Toledo had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital when he was 4 or 5 years old.

Prosecutors faced a greater challenge since court decisions and the Legislature had tightened the state's death penalty law so that all 12 jurors had to recommend death. The jury voted 10 to 2 for death.

Nielsen said that he has not heard from Toledo since his sentencing on Jan. 19. The killing who is appealing his conviction. He said you have to give jurors who may not be too "gung-ho" about the death penalty something to hang their hat on, like the psychiatric hospital admission.

"When you are that young and you are committed to a psychiatric hospital that's pretty intense," Nielsen said.

Circuit Judge Raul Zambrano sentenced Toledo to three consecutive life terms. Zambrano said that he believed Toledo planned to kill the moment he turned off his phone.

R.J. Larizza, the state attorney for the 7th Circuit, said on Friday that all murder cases are heartbreaking but this one deserved the ultimate punishment.

"This was a case we sought the death penalty on and those are cases that we are very selective on and I think that says a lot," Larizza said.

Larizza praised Nieves Perez and other family members of the victims as strong and family oriented.

"I was grateful that at least we were able to help them find some peace by being able to get a conviction and holding Toledo accountable for what he did," Larizza said.

If the bodies are ever found it will likely be because Toledo decided to talk, said Tad DiBiase, a former federal prosecutor who wrote a book about no-body murders. He said there have been 517 no-body murder cases that have gone to trial since the 1830s in the United States.

In only a handful of those were the bodies ever found.

"It's not unheard of but it's very rare and typically when the body is found afterward it's only because the defendant decided to cooperate as part of a plea deal or to get out of a death penalty," DiBiase said. "Some type of benefit to him is usually the only way the body is found."

Nieves Suarez said other families who have missing loved ones will be at the awareness ceremony on Tuesday. She said they try to support each other as members of a family of heartache and grief.

"We belong to the family that you don't want to belong. It's sad to say, but its reality," Nieves Suarez said.

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Information from: Daytona Beach (Fla.) News-Journal, http://www.news-journalonline.com

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