BEXAR COUNTY, Texas (Court TV) — A South Texas border patrol agent was convicted of capital murder in the deaths of four women after jurors heard recordings of him telling investigators he was trying to “clean up the streets” of his South Texas hometown.
Juan David Ortiz, 39, receives an automatic sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole because prosecutors decided not to seek the death penalty.
The deaths of Melissa Ramirez, Claudine Anne Luera, Griselda Cantu and Janelle Ortiz all occurred in and around Laredo, Texas in September 2018. All four women worked in an area of San Bernardo Avenue known as “the prostitute blocks.”
The murders were believed to be the work of a serial killer, but police did not yet have a suspect. Ortiz — a father, husband and former U.S. Navy medical technician, who was employed as a border patrol agent — certainly was not on their list of suspects.
Ortiz, however, was a regular customer on San Bernardo Avenue. Police say he confessed to the murders.
Ortiz told police that on September 3, 2018, he picked up Ramirez, 29, and drove out of the city. When they stopped on the side of the road off Texas Highway 255 so she could use the restroom, he shot her multiple times in the head. A rancher found Ramirez’s body early the next day.
Ortiz also told police he picked up Claudine Anne Luera, 42, 10 days later. He said he drove to the same highway, pulled over on the side of the road and shot Luera in the head.
On September 14, 2018, Ortiz said he picked up Erika Pena, 26, the woman whose escape broke the case for investigators.
According to Pena, while at a gas station, she mentioned the death of her friend Ramirez, and he pulled out a gun and pointed it at her. Pena managed to jump out of Ortiz’s truck and get help from a trooper pumping gas.
By the time police arrived at Ortiz’s home, he was gone. A manhunt ensued.
While police were looking for Ortiz, he picked up Cantu, 35, drove to an overpass, ordered her to get out of the truck and shot her in the head.
He allegedly drove back to San Bernardo Avenue and picked up Janelle Ortiz, 28, then drove out of the city and shot her in the back of the head.
Ortiz returned to Laredo, where he was spotted by two officers at a gas station. One officer attempted to tase Ortiz, but he fled on foot, running to a nearby hotel. SWAT team personnel soon closed in Ortiz as he hid in the hotel’s parking garage.
Although he gave police a confession, Ortiz has pleaded not guilty.
According to court documents, PTSD and the medication Ortiz was taking for it are expected to be brought up during the trial in his defense.
The verdict came down quickly after the jury deliberated for just over three hours.
DAY 8 – 12/7/22
- Juan David Ortiz will spend the rest of his life in prison without the possibility of parole, after a jury of eight women and four men found him guilty of the top count of capital murder in the execution-style slayings of four sex workers in the border town of Laredo, Texas.
- Ortiz’s trial was decided in San Antonio after the judge granted a defense motion for a change of venue. Jurors were asked to consider the lesser charge of murder for each of the victims, if they had reasonable doubt that the murders shared a common scheme or course of conduct. Though Ortiz was charged with aggravated assault, and unlawful restraint for pointing a gun at Erika Pena, and avoiding detection when he fled from police, those charges were dropped before closing arguments began. The jury took five hours to reach its guilty verdict on the one count of capital murder, dooming Ortiz to a lifetime in prison.
- The verdict was followed by impact statements given by family members who spoke for each of the four victims. Among them was Joey Cantu, Guiselda Hernandez’s brother who in an emotional and revealing statement, disclosed that his parents had been murdered and now mourned the loss of his sister who died violently at the hands of Ortiz.
- He told Ortiz Guiselda was the little sister who protected him from bullies when they were children. He confessed that he had stood in Ortiz’s shoes when as a teenager more than 20 years ago, he too was sentenced and served 22.5 years of a 40 year sentence for murder. When he was paroled, the sister of his victim wrote to him to forgive him and he would do the same now for Ortiz. In fact, he said he appealed to the district attorney to drop the death penalty against the former border control agent.
- Claudine Luera’s sister also forgave Ortiz for killing her sibling while Janelle Ortiz’s sister said she would keep Ortiz’s family in her prayers because they were not to blame for his crimes.
- Melissa Ramirez’s sister-in-law told Ortiz that he had caused her family much pain and suffering. Ramirez was the first victim, shot multiple times, her body dumped on a rural dirt road – a pattern that Ortiz repeated three times before he was apprehended. Ramirez’s relative cursed Ortiz, called him a monster and wished him death.
- In closing arguments, defense attorney Joel Perez urged the jury to consider tossing out his client’s confession, the handgun and other items police recovered in what he says was an illegal and warrantless search of Ortiz’s truck. Perez reminded jurors that they had taken an oath to follow the law and if they found reasonable doubt as to whether Ortiz’s confession was voluntary and whether the search of his vehicle was legal, then they were duty bound to disregard that evidence and find the former border patrol agent not guilty.
- Perez highlighted the defendant’s service to his country and asked jurors if Ortiz could be a serial killer after pursuing a career as a combat medic helping to save the lives of others.
- District Attorney Isidro Alaniz, answered the question before the jury did, “Juan David Ortiz was a serial killer then and he is a serial killer now,” said the prosecutor shortly after taking the floor for his rebuttal argument. He reminded jurors that “no one was above the law and no one was below it,” arguing the four women who died by Ortiz’s hands deserved justice.
- He noted the defensive wound on Ramirez’s wrist – an effort to protect herself against the attack, before he shot her two more times in the jaw and the neck.
- “She’s telling you in the last moments of her life she wanted to live,” aid Alaniz. “She did not want to die.”
- He went on to discuss the deaths of the other women. He held up a photo of Claudine Luera’s crime scene noting her belongings were scattered about the ground near where her body had been found. The evidence suggests Luera ran for her life before she was shot from a distance, he said.
- The attack on Guiselda Hernandez Cantu was especially brutal given that in the last moments of her life she had tried to talk him out of committing suicide. She was beaten and shot multiple times. The DA noted that Ortiz’s callousness was evident when he dismissed Janelle Ortiz, his last victim as a nameless ‘bitch.’
- Alaniz held up large photos of each of the victims and asked the jurors to let them guide their deliberations to a guilty verdict.
DAY 7 – 12/6/22
- Juan David Ortiz wiped away tears as he listened to jailhouse calls that the State says rebuts claims that the former border control agent was suffering from blackouts and memory loss, when he confessed to killing four prostitutes in Laredo, Texas. Both sides rested Tuesday with the defense not calling any witnesses.
- Prosecutors played Exhibit #239, a 30-minute jailhouse call between Ortiz and his wife, during which he is heard engaging in playful chatter with his children, calling one them a ‘chipmunk.’ His daughter asks him what he had for lunch, and tells him she wants to be a chef. Their cheerful banter belies the grim reality he faces as a capital murder defendant as he and his wife talk about their hope for a miracle. While his wife and children repeatedly expressed their love for him, he held his head in his arms and wept.
- Only a few seconds of the November 6, 2018 call was played for the jury, after the judge ruled that most of the exchange was not relevant.
- “I’m very concerned over the statement that I made,” Ortiz is heard telling his wife Danielle in the snippet that played for jurors. “I know there is no evidence just the confession that I made.”
- Webb County District Attorney Isidro Alaniz, said the statements reflect Ortiz’s ability to recall what he said, and recognize that what he said was incriminating.
- Prosecutors wanted to play a second jailhouse call in which Ortiz suggested his case was similar to that of Casey Anthony’s based on a book he read. The judge found that call irrelevant and barred it from being played for the jury.
- Earlier in the day, Joel Perez tried to advance his defense during his cross of EJ Salinas, the Texas Ranger who help obtain Ortiz’s confession and supervised the search and seizure of the defendant’s truck.
- Perez suggested the investigators used coercive tactics in their questioning of Ortiz, floating quid pro quo favors in order gain the admissions. Perez noted that Ortiz told investigators several times that he did not want to make a statement yet they continued to prod him and gave him nothing but water and chips over a 10-hour period until he confessed. Perez appeared to make some headway when he questioned Salinas about the search of Ortiz’s truck. Perez said without a search warrant – police could only photograph what was in plain view of their sight. Salinas conceded the gun they recovered was not in plain view, and only noticed it years later in a review of the pictures. But he insisted he didn’t need a search warrant, because he had probable cause to search the vehicle.
- If Perez had made any headway in his cross, it was difficult to overcome testimony from the firearms examiner. He concluded that the spent cartridge casings found at each of the crime scenes and the bullets recovered from the victims were all fired from Ortiz’s handgun.
- A forensic scientist opined that a tire impression recovered from the scene where Claudine Luera’s body was found could have been made by any one of the tires on the defendant’s truck.
- WATCH: TX v. Juan David Ortiz Livestream Day 7
DAY 6 – 12/5/22
- The medical examiner who performed autopsies on the Laredo murder victims testified all the women died of gunshot wounds to the head helping to reinforce the State’s case that the victims are connected by one killer.
- The shocking details of their deaths accompanied by autopsy photos proved overwhelming for some relatives who fled the courtroom. Others who stayed, buried their heads in their hands emotional and traumatized by what they saw. One man gasped audibly while photos of Guiselda Hernandez’s body were displayed for the jury. He became so agitated, it alerted deputies, and those deputies who were seated stood up to observe him more closely.
- Melissa Ramirez the first victim, suffered one shot to the jaw, and two to the neck. Stern testified there was either soot or stippling on all three wounds suggesting she was shot at close range. The defensive wound, with a bullet trajectory that went from the inside of her wrist and exited the top of her wrist suggested Ramirez may have held up her hand to ward off the attack.
- Claudine Luera and Janelle Ortiz were both shot in the back of the head with a large caliber weapon. The medical examiner testified that there were attempts to save Claudine’s life who was found still alive on a dirt road. Guiselda Hernandez suffered a severe head injury, bruising and cuts to the face as well as being shot twice in the neck.
- Stern also testified that all four victims showed signs of drug use Ramirez and Luera’s toxicology screens indicated they had cocaine and/or heroin in their system. Hernandez had abdomen scars, and Janelle Ortiz had needle marks on her arm suggesting sites for drug injections.
- Texas Ranger EJ Salinas introduced new video of Ortiz entering a convenience store to buy beer shortly before 11:00 pm the night of September 14, 2018. The video helps to tie down the events leading up to his arrest. After Erika Pena escapes and from him he is captured on surveillance video at a convenience store gas station appearing to be calm while buying beer.
- When he is confronted again at about 1:00 AM and captured soon after, his firearm is recovered from the side panel of his truck. The police discover one of the magazines appears to have 3 rounds missing.
- He also testified that after Melissa Ramirez’ murder they consulted the Intelligence unit that Juan David Ortiz supervised. At the time she had not been identified and they were searching for a suspect, the intelligence unit had access to license plate readers, and Ortiz said he had been asked to check a black truck connected to Ramirez’s murder.
- WATCH: TX v. Juan David Ortiz Day 6 Livestream
DAY 5 – 12/2/22
- Captain Federico Calderon details what Ortiz revealed about the murders of Erica, Claudine and Guiselda.
- On cross-examination, Cpt. Calderon says the camera in the interrogation room is hidden but there are other visible cameras in the room. Calderon says the camera that is hidden is meant to not be a distraction, and that most people know they’re being recorded when they’re in there. Though he didn’t tell Ortiz he was being recorded.
- Ranger EJ Salinas says there’s two sides to every story, then asks, ‘are you willing to tell us?’ At this point, Ortiz answers, ‘no.’ Calderon says he did not see this as Ortiz invoking his 5th amendment right.
- Investigator Noe Perez, the arresting officer, brings up, that during Ortiz’s interrogation, Ortiz said he wasn’t mentally well after 7 hours of interrogation, mentioned being on medication, said he’d been drinking, wanted to commit suicide, and yet Calderon persisted with the interrogation.
- Perez indicated it appeared, after 8 hours of interrogation, Ranger Salinas tried to induce Ortiz to talk by saying the DA was present and that he (Salinas) could put in a good word with the DA if he (Ortiz) talks.
- WATCH: TX v. Juan David Ortiz Day 5 Livestream
DAY 4 – 12/1/22
- After several hours of denying he knew anything about the slayings of prostitutes in Laredo, Juan David Ortiz offered chilling details about their murders and told investigators that after killing Melissa Ramirez, ‘this is where the monster that came out.”
- Police recorded Ortiz’s interrogation on 12 discs, starting at 3:21 AM and ending around noon September 15, 2018. Captain Federico Calderon one of two investigators who questioned him that day testified that said he had been uncooperative at the beginning, refusing to acknowledge that he had been with Erika Peña even though she testified Ortiz had been a regular customer of hers over the last five months.
- Investigators confronted him with the information that Peña gave them, along with the items that she left in his truck, which included a purse containing syringes, a crack pipe and condoms. Ortiz told investigators he didn’t know who the items belonged to or how they got in his truck.
- When shown pictures of the victims, Ortiz denied knowing them, crumpled up the pictures and tossed them aside. However by disc 6, police said they began making some headway with Ortiz. He asked for a picture of his family from his phone and for his handcuffs to be removed. Ortiz admitted that he had been lying and agreed he had been with Peña and they had talked about him being with Melissa Ramirez. While prosecutors contend Ortiz ripped off Peña’s shirt trying to restrain her, he recalls that he was simply trying to calm her down because she was freaking out. He admitted that he had fired his weapon that night but claimed he shot it into the sky.
- By disc 7, Calderon said Ortiz shared details of what happened to Melissa Ramirez. He said she passed out in his truck after she got high. He thought about taking her to a hospital but was concerned ‘someone would think I did something to her’. Instead he kept driving, and when she woke up she became belligerent, “shit started happening.” Ortiz said she was ‘mouthing off.’ Ortiz needed to stop so she could urinate and when she squatted and fell, ‘you all know what happened.’
- “Did you fire off rounds,” the investigator asked.
- “Yeah,” he said. “I was trying to rationalize it by telling myself there’s no reason to feel sorry for her. But this is where the monster came out.”
- Prosecutors are expected to continue playing the rest of disc 7 for jurors when court resumes Friday morning. Disc 7 is where Calderon says they learn how Ortiz allegedly killed Claudine Luera and Guisella Hernandez.
- Calderon testified he learned of the third victim while he was at the Ava Hotel, apprehending Ortiz, and they did not learn of Janelle Ortiz’s death until the defendant disclosed it during the confession.
- WATCH: TX v. Juan David Ortiz Day 4 Livestream
DAY 3 – 11/30/22
- Jurors heard Juan David Ortiz explain his behavior after leading officers on a foot chase through downtown Laredo following an alleged crime spree that included 2 murders and an alleged assault against a sex worker he picked up the day before.
- “I have never been arrested in my life,” he told the two investigators interviewing him. “Never met with the VA until I got to Laredo. They confirmed I got PTSD and put me on all kinds of pills. I got PTSD they put me on Paxil for anxiety and depression, and medication for high blood pressure.”
- “I told the doctor I was suicidal,” he said, and went on to say that the range of medication he had been prescribed was giving him headaches.
- Ortiz told the officers that he had transferred to Laredo from San Antonio to accept a promotion, but was experiencing blackouts due to his drinking, which had ‘gotten out of hand’ and was raising some concern in his marriage.
- One of his interrogators, Federico Calderon, probed him for answers confronting him with what Erika Peña reported happened when she started talking about Melissa Ramirez and Claudine Luera, two prostitutes found murdered outside Laredo city limits.
- “I know you picked someone up earlier and took her to your house. She described your house, described you by name,” said Calderon. “Explain what happened.”
- “I don’t recall.” Said Ortiz, who denied even knowing Peña, while she testified that she had known Ortiz for five months and had met him regularly for drugs and sex.
- In response to law enforcement’s questions, which began at 3:21 AM, Ortiz was often evasive, responding with “You should know,” “I don’t recall,” or “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
- Jurors watched as he sat in the interrogation room for over an hour. When investigators were not in the room he occasionally placed his head down, or leaned to the side, appearing to nod off. During a break from questioning he went to the bathroom and snacked on potato chips.
- Prosecutors say Ortiz confessed to the murders, disclosing at the conclusion of the interview that there was a fourth victim, revealing to investigators that she was at mile marker 13 on interstate 35. Defense is contending that the confession is false, that he did not kill the women, and the reason why he knew the whereabouts of the last victim was because of his work as an intelligence officer.
- Calderon resumes his testimony Thursday and will show more of the alleged confession.
- WATCH: TX v. Juan David Ortiz Livestream Day 3
DAY 2 – 11/29/22
- Prosecutors played for jurors dramatic bodycam video that recorded Juan David Ortiz in the moments after he was identified as a suspect in the murders of two Laredo sex workers and an attack against a third prostitute.
- Trooper John Henry Bradshaw spotted the border control agent’s vehicle, after Ortiz was flagged in a BOLO (Be on the Lookout) following an alleged attack against Erika Peña, who testified Ortiz had pointed a gun at her. Bradshaw said he pulled into the Circle K gas station, where he saw Ortiz’s truck and called for backup. Abiel Obrego responded seconds later.
- The troopers walked jurors through bodycam video that showed them confronting Ortiz with guns drawn as he emerged from the convenience store where he stopped in the early morning hours of September 15, 2018. They can be heard on the video yelling for him to turn around and get down. Obrego told Ortiz they wanted to talk to him, because his truck had been linked to two recent Laredo murders.
- “You’re freaking me out,” Ortiz is heard saying. The officers said Ortiz did not comply with their commands and instead fled the scene setting off a foot chase through the streets of downtown Laredo. Video from Obrego’s bodycam showed the officers methodically search a multi-level garage until they found him hiding in a pickup truck on the top floor of the structure.
- The videos document the minute by minute pursuit until his arrest and his transport to the substation where he would be interrogated by police. During this period Ortiz appears calm despite the intense onslaught of armed officers from different agencies tracking and ultimately detaining him.
- Noe Gonzalez who was with Webb County SWAT testified he participated in Ortiz’s capture, pulling him from the truck and placing him on the ground until he was handcuffed. He then sat next to Ortiz to secure his transport to the police station. Gonzalez said he was not in the interrogation room with Ortiz, but was able to observe the interview via a livestream.
- At the end of the hours-long interview he testified he heard Ortiz say there was one last victim and that she could be found at mile marker 13, on interstate 35. Gonzalez said he went to the location and discovered the body of a woman face down, with a wound to the back of her head – the woman was later identified as Janelle Ortiz – the fourth sex-worker Ortiz allegedly executed before he was captured.
- WATCH: TX v. Juan David Ortiz Livestream Day 2
DAY 1 – 11/28/22
- In their opening statement, prosecutors say Ortiz confessed to murders including the shooting of Janelle Ortiz, whose body–investigators had not yet discovered yet when they questioned him.
- Defense says their client is a broken man, his confession was coerced, and as an intelligence officer for border control was privy to information that wasn’t accessible to other law enforcement.
- Erika Peña testified that she narrowly escaped with her life on September 14, 2018, just a day after a second prostitute was found shot to death less than two miles from where Ramirez’s body was discovered. The similarities in both murders unnerved Peña, but she had been with defendant before and had known him for at least five months. She knew him simply as ‘David,’ When he picked her up that night, they went to his house, he told her his wife and children were out of town. She saw him frequently enough, that they had a routine, he gave her money to purchase drugs, cigarettes and beer. When they went back to his home, she said she set out the heroin he purchased for her and ‘shot up.’
- She testified things were normal until she asked him about Melissa Ramirez, whom she considered a friend. Peña said David told her that he feared they would find his DNA on her, because he was the second to last person to have been with her. Peña said he because very nervous and it made her so uncomfortable that she felt nauseated and threw up outside his house.
- The defendant offered to take her somewhere to get food. They went to the gas station, where he parked behind a tractor trailer. When the subject of Ramirez came up, his mood changed.
- “He took out the gun. He didn’t say anything. He just stared at me. He pointed it at me right here at my face with his left arm,” Peña said holding out her index finger like a gun turning it toward her cheek. “Some way, somehow I took off running without my shirt.”
- Peña said Ortiz held the gun in his left hand while restraining her with his right hand in an effort to keep her from leaving, but she managed to flee by slipping out of his grasp and out of the shirt she had been wearing. She ran toward the gas pumps where a DPS officer happened to be filling up.
- She was captured on surveillance video and on the trooper’s bodycam video wearing only her bra, and pants, giving the trooper a breathless account of what happened. The 40-minute portion of the video played for jurors, showed Peña appearing traumatized, breaking into Spanish numerous times, Peña told the officer she was scared several times. She told him she knew him, and gave the officer a description of him, his truck and his home.
- On cross examination, Defense Attorney Joel Perez suggested her memory was impaired by a $300 to $400 dollar a day heroin and crack addiction. He suggested that she may have been hallucinating while on the drugs because she testified in a pre-trial hearing that she heard a voice that told her to ‘get out of there.’ She stated that it was not an audible voice that she heard but more of an intuitive voice.
- WATCH: TX v. Juan David Ortiz Livestream Day 1
Court TV’s Grace Wong, Senior Director of Courtroom Coverage, contributed to this report.