SAN ANTONIO — A former U.S. Border Patrol agent executed four women, all sex workers, in a 2018 vigilante-inspired killing spree along the Texas/Mexico border because “he wanted to clean up the streets,” prosecutors said on the first day of Juan David Ortiz’s trial.
“You will hear in his own words — the indifference, the disrespect, the degradation that he has for these people to justify ending their lives,” Webb County District Attorney Isidro Alaniz told jurors Monday during opening statements. “You will hear the evidence in his own words, ‘I wanted to clean up the streets,’ and in Spanish he says…‘these bitches are dirt and I was going to get rid of them.”
Prosecutors revealed a sinister 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 whom he paid for sex. That woman, Ericka Pena of Laredo, went into “survival mode” and escaped Ortiz, prosecutors said, before flagging down a Texas state trooper while shirtless and in hysterics at a nearby convenience store.
Pena, 31, testified Monday as the state’s first witness at the Cadena Reeves Justice Center in San Antonio. Webb County Judge Oscar J. Hale Jr. in August granted a defense request to move the trial to San Antonio due in part to the national media attention the case has attracted. The trial is being livestreamed by CourtTV and a local ABC news affiliate, while some who knew the victims filled one side of the small courtroom with shirts that read "They Were Loved" and "Justice for Janelle."
Ortiz, 39, who wore a black suit and glasses as his capital murder trial began Monday, glared directly at Pena when she was asked to point him out in the courtroom. He was flanked by his two court-appointed attorneys, Joel Perez and Raymond Fuchs, and two armed law enforcement officers.
Perez presented to jurors an alternate version of Ortiz as a good husband with children and a clean record who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and “was in a bad situation with the VA giving him these medications that God knows what they do to you,” Perez said.
The defense attorney told the jury that they will hear evidence that Ortiz’s confession after approximately nine hours of being interrogated by investigators was coerced, and that investigators jumped to conclusions. Perez spent time Monday afternoon attempting to poke holes in Pena's testimony by pointing out inconsistencies with her previous statements under oath, and with her own checkered past as a prostitute with a known drug habit and at least 10 arrests.
Pena, who admitted that she used to have sex with men to support her heroin and crack addiction, told jurors that she met Ortiz in a chance encounter after he spotted her walking and offered her a ride. She said they had sex that same night, which Ortiz paid her for as he would in the five to six months that they knew each other, and described him during that time as “very nice, very sweet, very funny, a normal guy.
“I never noticed any odd behavior. I don’t know what happened to him,” Pena said.
That changed on the night of Sept. 14, 2018, when Pena said Ortiz grew uneasy and acted odd when she began to speak about 29-year-old Melissa Ramirez, a friend she knew who was found dead a week prior. She testified that she became so scared of his demeanor that night that she didn't want to give her back to him, and vomited in his front yard before they left the residence in his pickup truck.
“Maybe he was the one,” Pena said she remembers thinking. “The one that had been murdering.”
She told jurors that she "took off running" after Ortiz brought up Ramirez again while they were stopped at a gas station and he pointed a pistol at her head. She managed to free herself from Ortiz's grip after pulling off her shirt and ran until she found Francisco Hernandez, a Texas state trooper who was pumping gas.
Ortiz, who earned a Master's degree from St. Mary's University and received specialized training in the investigation and interdiction of narcotics and human trafficking offenses, fled authorities but was later found in a hotel parking garage. After initially denying any involvement in the crimes, he confessed to the killings of four women between Sept. 3, 2018 and Sept. 15 of that year, according to trial testimony and an arrest affidavit. He pleaded not guilty to charges of capital murder, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, unlawful restraint and evading arrest.
In addition to Ramirez, Ortiz is accused of killing Guiselda Alicia Cantu, 35; Claudine Anne Luera, 42; and 28-year-old Humberto Ortiz, a transgender woman also known as Janelle Ortiz.
Testimony is to continue Tuesday and is expected to last about two weeks. Ortiz faces life in prison without parole if convicted because prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty.
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