A Brooklyn woman charged with the slaying and dismemberment of a missing mother of four whose body parts were found earlier this month in Bay Shore and Hempstead pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder at her arraignment Thursday in First District Court in Central Islip.
Saying accused murderer Leah Cuevas, 42, had been charged with "the worst conduct that humans can be capable of," Judge G. Ann Spelman then remanded the woman to Suffolk County Jail.
Cuevas, who lives in the same Brooklyn apartment building as the victim, Chinelle Latoya Thompson Browne, was arrested Wednesday morning by Suffolk County police with the help of the U.S. Marshals NY/NJ Regional Fugitive Task Force, authorities said.
Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Robert Biancavilla indicated to the court that authorities had identified Cuevas as a suspect early into their investigation after identifying tattoos and DNA analysis determined the recovered remains were those of Browne.
He said witnesses reported a confrontation between the two women on July 4 -- an argument so heated NYPD officers from the 73rd Precinct were called on to intervene -- as well as another heated argument from inside Cuevas' first-floor apartment, where Browne was heard screaming: "No Lee [Leah], no Lee [Leah]."
He said that during a search warrant of the apartment on July 10 Cuevas admitted she'd had a confrontation with Browne -- and Biancavilla also said police identified blood spatter belonging to the victim. He told the court the location of the remains found in Bay Shore, consisting of a torso and severed legs, was less than a mile from the house where Cuevas' sister lives.
Cuevas had been held overnight at Suffolk's Fourth Precinct following her arrest, police said. The Nassau County and Hempstead Village police departments and the NYPD, as well as the Nassau and Suffolk County medical examiner's offices, assisted in the investigation, police said. That investigation remains active.
Browne, an immigrant from Guyana with four children and a husband still residing there, disappeared from her apartment at 346 Sumpter St. in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.
Police had been investigating whether the body parts found in Bay Shore and Hempstead belonged to Browne, who was last seen July 5.
One theory being pursued by police is that Cuevas may have been posing as the landlord at the apartment building and charging Browne rent, said a law enforcement source. When Browne learned that Cuevas wasn't the landlord the two women argued about the money, said the source who didn't want to be identified.
Investigators interviewed witnesses who said they heard an argument in Cuevas' apartment around the time Browne disappeared and noticed the missing woman's laundry basket outside the apartment, said the source.
It was unclear early Thursday where Browne was actually killed and where her body was dismembered. The Sumpter Street building is accessible from a front door and a basement entrance on the front side of a street lined with apartment buildings.
Police were aware of one questionable real estate transaction at the Brooklyn address. In June 2013, a deed was filed with the city which purported to show a transfer to a man named Vladimir Cuevas from the original owner Garth Lewis. But at the time of the alleged transfer Lewis had already been dead for four months from natural causes, state court records show.
Vladimir Cuevas is believed by police to be the husband of Leah Cuevas and hasn't been charged with any wrongdoing in the case, said the source. Vladimir Cuevas didn't return a message left with his family for comment Wednesday.
In October 2013, Lewis' widow, Janett Lloyd, filed another deed in which she claimed to be the owner as her husband's sole surviving heir, city records show. However, relatives of Lewis filed a Brooklyn state lawsuit challenging Lloyd's right to inherit, alleging she had entered into a sham marriage with Lewis. The matter is currently in Brooklyn Surrogate's Court. Lloyd's attorney declined to comment on the case.
Browne's remains were first found July 8, in a vacant Bay Shore lot used as a shortcut between a municipal parking lot and the Fire Island Ferry terminal. The body was missing both arms and its head, police sources said at the time. The next day, a severed arm was found on the lawn of a home on Webb Avenue in Hempstead.
Another arm was found July 10 in a yard on Cornell Street, about half a mile from the first arm. On July 17, a human head was found in the yard of a home Boylston Street in Hempstead.