SAN ANTONIO — A Texas jury on Wednesday convicted former U.S. Border Patrol agent Juan David Ortiz of capital murder for the 2018 vigilante-inspired killing spree of four women, all sex workers, along the Texas/Mexico border.
The 12-member jury deliberated for just over five hours before rejecting Ortiz’s claims that investigators coerced his video recorded confession to the murders while disregarding his constitutional rights, and that state prosecutors simply lacked enough evidence to convict him.
Ortiz, 39, expressed little emotion as the verdict was read and family members delivered victim impact statements Wednesday evening. He was immediately sentenced to life in prison without parole because prosecutors, with support of the victims’ families, removed the death penalty from the table. The trial had been moved to San Antonio, about 150 miles north of Laredo, because of the intensive media attention the case attracted in the border community where the crimes occurred.
“Mr. Ortiz was a serial killer then and he is a serial killer now,” said Webb-Zapata County District Attorney Isidro R. “Chilo” Alaniz during closing arguments while pointing directly at Ortiz. “Nobody is above the law.”
At trial, prosecutors revealed a disturbing portrait of an unhinged border patrol agent and Navy veteran who, during a two-week period in Laredo, killed four women and attacked a fifth, all of whom he paid for sex. That woman, Ericka Pena, told jurors during her testimony that she sprung into “survival mode” and escaped Ortiz’s pickup truck after he pointed a gun at her.
She testified during the first day of trial that she found a Texas state trooper while shirtless and in hysterics at a nearby convenience store after losing her shirt by wiggling her way out of Ortiz’s grip.
But Pena, who Alaniz said “was the key to breaking open this case” was also the lucky one, the prosecutor said. Ortiz, then 35, “knowingly and intentionally” shot and killed four women execution-style between Sept. 3 and Sept. 15, 2018, using the same .40 caliber H&K pistol, he said. The victims are: Melissa Ramirez, 29; Claudine Anne Luera, 42; Guiselda Alicia Cantu, 35; and 28-year-old Humberto Ortiz, a transgender woman also known as Janelle Ortiz.
All four victims were shot in the head or neck, trial testimony revealed.
Sean Daniel, a forensic scientist who tested the weapon while he was employed with the Texas Department of Public Safety, testified Tuesday that all six projectiles, four bullets and two bullet fragments, were fired by the same H&K pistol. The jacketed hollow point bullets used in the killings are “the most common” type of bullet used by law enforcement officers, he said.
“I would say that’s the standard,” Daniels said.
Defense attorneys Joel Perez and Raymond Fuchs spent the last eight days of trial trying to convince the jury that prosecutors jumped to conclusions, coerced an involuntary confession that should have been disregarded by the jury and violated Ortiz’s constitutional rights by illegally searching his pickup truck and failing to read him his Miranda rights before his interrogation.
“The search is illegal, was illegal, and that evidence should not have been admitted for your consideration,” Fuchs told jurors during closing statements Wednesday.
It was during that video recorded interrogation, which jurors watched at trial, that Ortiz confessed to the killings.
“He tells us the entire story,” Webb-Zapata County Assistant District Attorney Karina Rios said, referring to Ortiz's video-recorded confession. “And he will tell you in there why he did this at least four times, he’s going to say it, ‘I was cleaning up the streets. I was cleaning up the streets. I was cleaning up the streets. I was cleaning up the streets.’”
Rios said that Ortiz’s confession was obtained “without promise, coercion, or intimidation.”
Jurors heard from at least a dozen prosecution witnesses during seven full days of trial testimony, listened to Ortiz’s confession to investigators and saw graphic autopsy photos that shook family members and caused a juror to pass out.
The guilty verdict came almost four years to the day after Ortiz’s Dec. 5, 2018 indictment.
Ortiz served in the Navy from 2001 – 2009 before joining the Border Patrol, where he rose through the ranks to become an intelligence operator in a supervisory role until his arrest. He earned a Master’s degree from St. Mary’s University while an agent and also holds a Bachelor’s degree from American Military University.
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