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Quintuple homicide suspect changes plea

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Juan David Villegas-Hernandez sits while waiting for court proceedings to begin Thursday at the Chaves County Courthouse. The trial of Villegas-Hernandez, which was scheduled to last weeks, ended after four days when he moved to change his initial plea of not guilty to one of no contest on five counts of first degree murder, willful and deliberate. Villegas-Hernandez is scheduled to be sentenced May 19. (Alex Ross Photo)

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The trial of a man suspected in the 2016 shooting deaths of his wife and four children came to an abrupt end Thursday when the defendant withdrew his initial plea of not guilty.

Juan David Villegas-Hernandez, 40, waived his right to continue with the trial and changed his plea from not guilty to no contest on five counts of first-degree murder, willful and deliberate.

Herman Ortiz, attorney for Villegas-Hernandez, at a Thursday morning meeting told Judge Dustin K. Hunter of New Mexico’s 5th Judicial District Court, along with prosecutors in the case, that his client had notified him of a desire to change his plea. No terms of sentencing were agreed to as part of the plea change.

A change of plea in the middle of a trial is something Scott Key, district attorney for New Mexico’s 12th Judicial District and a prosecutor in the case, said is unusual, and it was not anticipated.

Nonetheless, he said it was welcome relief for family members of the victims, some of whom were slated to testify all day Thursday and Friday.

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Villegas-Hernandez will be sentenced on all five counts at a Wednesday, May 19 hearing. Each count of first degree murder carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment without parole. At the hearing it will also be decided whether the sentences will run concurrently or consecutively.

Speaking to the media after the plea was officially agreed upon, Key said the prosecution plans to ask that the sentences run consecutively, or one after another.

Hunter said that because Villegas-Hernandez is not a U.S. citizen, he could be removed from the U.S. upon completion of his sentence. Key later confirmed that Villegas-Hernandez is not a citizen, but is in the country legally.

Villegas-Hernandez was charged in connection with the June 11, 2016 fatal shootings of his wife, 34-year-old Cynthia Villegas, and four daughters: Yamilen, 14; Cynthia Janeth, 11; Abby, 7; and Ida, 3, in their 2503 North Davis Street home in Roswell.

The prosecution contends Villegas-Hernandez shot all five at point blank range with a .22 caliber rifle or handgun after finding out his wife wanted to divorce him. That same day he then reportedly fled to Mexico, where he was located by Mexican police the next day.

Ortiz declined to comment Thursday on the case or why his client opted to change his plea. Key though said several members of the victims’ family testified Wednesday, including one woman who had spoken to Villegas-Hernandez several times on the day of the shootings. Key said her testimony was compelling and important to the state.

The trial began Monday with a jury selection process that lasted until Tuesday morning before state witnesses were called. In all, the state was expected to call up to 25 witnesses to provide testimony during the trial that was initially scheduled to end May 28.

Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 301, or breakingnews@rdrnews.com.

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