A young Brooklyn mother whose body parts were found on Long Island pleaded for her life moments before an enraged neighbor stabbed her with such force she was eventually decapitated, according to prosecutors and court papers.
Details of the final, violent encounter between the two women were revealed Thursday at the arraignment of Leah Cuevas, 42, of Brooklyn, on second-degree murder charges in the killing of Chinelle Latoya Thompson Browne, 27.
Cuevas was arrested early Wednesday by Suffolk police officers and the U.S. Marshals NY/NJ Regional Fugitive Task Force. Her arrest came nearly three weeks after Browne disappeared from the Bedford-Stuyvesant building at 346 Sumpter St. where both lived.
Cuevas killed Browne on July 5, a day after she "angrily confronted" her neighbor "over what she claimed to be the nonpayment of rent and utilities," Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Robert Biancavilla said in court.
Witnesses overheard portions of the argument in Cuevas' apartment as it became more heated, according to the court papers.
"No Lee! No Lee!" Browne said to Cuevas, according to Biancavilla. "What you doing? Oh no, oh no! I'm sorry, I'm sorry."
Not long after, Browne was reported missing. Body parts -- a torso and severed legs -- were found within days in Bay Shore.
Early yesterday morning, Suffolk police identified the victim as Browne, a Guyanese native whose husband and four children still live there.
Cuevas' court-appointed attorney entered a not guilty plea Thursday in First District Court in Central Islip.
Attorney Mary Beth Abbate said Suffolk had no jurisdiction in the case. She said Cuevas had no record, the charges should be dropped and her client released.
Biancavilla acknowledged that Browne was killed in Brooklyn but her body parts were found in a Bay Shore lot on July 8. A human head, later identified as Browne's, was found with other body parts in Hempstead days later, authorities said.
District Court Judge G. Ann Spelman ordered Cuevas into custody without bail and said that she was "charged with the worst conduct that humans can be capable of."
Wanted better for family
Browne's husband, Dale, attended the hearing. He flew from Guyana after finding out his wife was missing. Outside the courtroom, he told a familiar tale of immigrant families coming to the United States separately with the goal of being reunited.
In Browne's case, she had moved to New York first. Dale Browne said he and their children were to follow. "This . . . is a story of persons wanting better for their family, which is the human story," Dale Browne said. "We resolved together that we would make this sacrifice, as hard as it was to do this."
Chinelle Browne eventually moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant and rented a second-floor apartment. Cuevas lived below her, at some point collecting her rent, court papers said.
Witnesses to their final argument told investigators Cuevas was "pretending" to be the landlord and had been collecting $400 a month from Browne for four to five months, according to court papers.
The building didn't have hot water, and a cord from the apartment prosecutors said Cuevas shared with her husband supplied the only electricity, which would periodically be shut off, according to court records.
Browne eventually learned that Cuevas was not the landlord and the two had argued, said a law enforcement source who did not want to be identified.
Suffolk authorities could not immediately confirm if Cuevas was the landlord, but law enforcement officials were aware of questionable court filings at the Sumpter Street address.
In June 2013, a deed was filed with the city that purported to show a transfer to Vladamir Cuevas -- who police say is Leah Cuevas' husband -- from original owner Garth Lewis. At the time of the transfer, Lewis had been dead for four months, state court records show.
In October 2013, Lewis' widow Janett Lloyd filed another deed, claiming to be the owner, as her husband's sole surviving heir, according to New York City records. However, other relatives filed a suit challenging Lloyd, alleging her marriage to Lewis was a sham.
The matter is in Brooklyn's Surrogate's Court and Vladamir Cuevas has not been charged with any wrongdoing in connection with the deed transfers or Browne's death.
Her final hours
The day before her death, Browne's apartment unit went dark after the power went out again, according to the court papers. This time, Browne confronted Cuevas and demanded she get the lights on. Cuevas yelled back. Browne left for work but not before Cuevas "followed her into the street and continued to scream at her," according to a witness in court papers.
A day later, witnesses told police they saw Browne entering the building pushing a shopping cart, Biancavilla said. Moments later, witnesses heard parts of the argument that authorities said ended with Browne dead in Cuevas' apartment, the victim of stab wounds, including "an incised wound which severed her head with a sharp instrument," court papers said. Biancavilla did not name the weapon used.
Her remains were first found in a Bay Shore lot less than a mile from Cuevas' sister's home, Biancavilla said. The next day, an arm was found on the lawn of a home in Hempstead. Another arm was found July 10 in a yard about half a mile away.
Browne's head was found July 17 in another Hempstead yard.
Armed with a search warrant, Suffolk police went to the Brooklyn apartment building July 10. They found Browne's blood in Cuevas' apartment and in a nearby hallway, Biancavilla said.
With Anthony Destefano