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Suspect in former UNLV professor’s death awaiting extradition from Peru

Updated January 30, 2019 - 10:52 pm

A suspect in the 2016 slaying of a former UNLV professor killed the 76-year-old in order to gain access to a $1.1 million retirement fund, according to an arrest report.

Leroy Pelton’s body was discovered in December 2016 when Henderson police performed a welfare check at his Henderson home, police have said. At the time, Pelton had not been seen or heard from since early November 2016, and neighbors were concerned, according to the arrest report for Rita Colon, 44, who has been awaiting extradition from Peru for more than a year.

Shortly after Pelton was discovered dead, police identified Colon as a suspect in the case and submitted a warrant for her arrest on a murder charge. Colon was apprehended in Peru in December 2017, Henderson police said Wednesday.

It remains unclear why police did not confirm her arrest until Wednesday.

Investigators believe Colon’s motive in Pelton’s killing was “monetary,” the report said. Pelton has a $1.1 million retirement account that police believe Colon, Pelton’s former student and girlfriend, tried to access after the man was killed.

Police said a review of Colon’s case was conducted in August, which showed Colon was still in Peru and awaiting extradition to the U.S.

Pelton was a professor emeritus at UNLV and had been a faculty member since 1997. He retired in 2013.

“He was well respected both on campus and in the community, and he will be missed dearly,” UNLV said in a statement at the time. “Our sincere condolences go out to his family and friends, his former colleagues, and the many students he taught during his tenure.”

Suspicious activity

Colon’s arrest report documents her “suspicious activity” and move to Peru with her mother and daughter in the days after investigators believe Pelton was killed.

When police performed a welfare check on Pelton on Dec. 10, 2016, they found his body was “badly decomposed.” His cellphone, driver’s license, house keys and car keys were missing.

The Clark County coroner’s office determined Pelton died from multiple stab wounds to the neck. He also had a stab wound to his liver and defensive knife wounds on both hands, the report said. Pelton was likely killed Nov. 15 or 16.

Paperwork inside Pelton’s house led police to call a woman living in Massachusetts, who said she previously dated Pelton and last saw him in September 2016. The woman said Pelton ended their relationship because he started dating Colon, whom the woman said was Pelton’s previous student, the report said.

Investigators found letters from Colon to Pelton inside the home, which “referenced anger issues that she had trouble controlling.”

When detectives tried to speak with Colon at her Henderson apartment, a neighbor said the 44-year-old had “abruptly” moved to Peru on Nov. 23, 2016, with her mother and 7-year-old daughter. Department of Homeland Security records confirmed the three flew to Peru on Nov. 24, 2016.

Police tracked Colon’s BMW sedan to the house of one of her male friends, who, “in hindsight,” thought her behavior before leaving for Peru was “suspicious,” the report said.

On Nov. 16, Colon asked to go to the man’s house, the report said. She had only been once before. Colon told the friend she had gotten lost, “sounded stressed out,” and was “profusely sweating and looked disheveled.”

Six days later, Colon asked her friend to drive to Pelton’s residence with her. Colon wanted to give Pelton “a piece of wall art” and asked to leave her car at his home while she was in Peru. Pelton’s car was in the driveway, but he didn’t answer the door, the report said.

Colon told her friend not to contact police because Pelton was “most likely out of town.” Colon later asked to leave her sedan at the man’s home while she was in Peru. The day her family left, her friend drove them to the airport.

After the man heard of Pelton’s death, Colon called him upset but insisting “she heard he died of a stroke,” despite news reports that Pelton’s death was suspicious, the report said.

The man told police he was “good acquaintances” with Pelton, though he wasn’t under the impression Pelton was dating Colon, according to the report. He said Colon referred to the 76-year-old as “Grandpa Pelton.”

Monetary motive

After submitting court orders to AT&T, investigators received Pelton’s phone records of five calls from Dec. 15 and 16, 2016. In between a call to check Pelton’s voicemail, the records show two calls made to TIAA, the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America-College Retirement Equities Fund. The second call to TIAA was the last call transaction, the report said.

Investigators determined Pelton had an account with TIAA containing about $1.1 million. An administrative subpoena to TIAA revealed recorded calls regarding Pelton’s retirement account. During the last received call, the caller “sounded like a Hispanic female who was clearly trying to muffle her voice to sound like a male,” the report said.

The person calling, who identified as Pelton, hung up when the TIAA representative asked for additional verification information. Colon’s friend also identified her as the caller.

Further data placed Pelton’s and Colon’s cellphones in “close proximity through Rita’s travels” on Nov. 16, 2016, after Pelton had been killed, the report said. A crime analyst placed the two phones at Colon’s friend’s home on Nov. 16 through AT&T tower records.

The cell tower records also placed Colon’s phone near Pelton’s residence when someone called TIAA from the man’s phone, as well as Colon’s phone at Pelton’s residence when her friend said the two drove there.

Because TIAA was contacted “immediately following” Pelton’s death, investigators believe “Colon’s motive was monetary.”

The arrest report did not detail how police found Colon in Peru. Colton faces a charge of murder with a deadly weapon.

Contact Katelyn Newberg at knewberg@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0240. Follow @k_newberg on Twitter. Review-Journal staff writer Rachel Crosby contributed to this report.

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