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Trial begins for farmer accused of murdering American pilgrim in Spain

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Trial begins for farmer accused of murdering American pilgrim in Spain
Denise Thiem disappeared on the camino de Santiago on April 5th 2015. Photo issued by Thiem Family
12:52 CET+01:00
A farmer from northern Spain has gone on trial for the murder of American Denise Thiem, who went missing as she walked the pilgrimage route to Santiago.

Miguel Angel Muñoz Blas, 40, appeared in court in León on Tuesday accused of the murder of a 41-year-old woman whose body was discovered on his land five months after she disappeared while walking the Camino de Santiago.

Denise Pikka Thiem, from Arizona, went missing in April 2015 in a rural area of northwestern Spain's Leon province while following the French route of the Camino de Santiago, a popular pilgrimage also called the St. James Way.

Muñoz was arrested five months later after her body was discovered on his land.

Muñoz in court in León. Photo: AFP

Appearing in court for the first time on Tuesday Muñoz refused to answer questions.

"I will not make a statement. I won't answer any questions from prosecutors or my lawyer either," he said.

At the time of his arrest the accused claimed that Thiem appeared on his property "lost and asking for help to find her way back to the pilgrimage route," said his lawyer, Vicente Prieto at the time.

"He claims she asked him to show her the way, then got nervous and somehow, and this has not been made clear, it ended with him hitting her," his lawyer said.

Police said that they believe the accused may have painted fake yellow arrows used to mark the pilgrimage route to divert unsuspecting pilgrims off the official track towards his house.

Prieto told the La Manaña programme that his client had hit his victim with a stick and when she fell to the ground was hit on the head with a stone.

"After determining that she had stopped breathing he then buried her in front of his house," said Prieto.

But Muñoz later dug her up and carried her to a more secluded area of farmland and reburied her. "She was naked, I am not sure why," said the lawyer. "He burned her clothes and her backpack." 

Police investigators at the time said they believed the killer may have removed her hands in an attempt to hinder her identification and possible forensic traces of her attacker that may have been under her fingernails after the struggle.

The accused led the police to the body after being arrested for the crime.

DNA tests confirmed that the remains were those of Thiem and the post mortem report stated that Thiem had received a blow to the head that had most probably caused her death.

The public prosecutor is asking for 25 years of imprisonment for Muñoz, 20 years for homicide and 5 years for theft with violence.

Although he originally confessed to having killed Thiem, he has since retracted the confession and testified that he only found the body.

Munoz is also accused of stealing more than €1,000 dollars that Thiem was carrying and that he allegedly exchanged for euros at a local bank days after she disappeared.

The trial is expected to last until April 3rd.

On Monday, the court appointed a jury of eight women and one man during a closed-door session, a court spokesman said.

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