LAREDO, Texas – The driver of the white Dodge Ram pickup truck circled the San Bernardo neighborhood, seeking his next prey.
The man pulled up next to Stephany Gonzalez, a sex worker on the strip, as she walked with her friend, Nikki Enriquez. He rolled down the window.
“How much?” he asked Gonzalez, 25.
Gonzalez had a bad feeling. Two of her good friends, also sex workers, were recently found dead with gunshot wounds to the head on rural roads outside Laredo. She was hoping for a client that night but felt uneasy by the nervous-sounding driver. She tightened her grip around a pocketknife she held under her shirt.
“I’m not working,” she lied. Her friend, Enriquez, a 28-year-old transgender woman known to many of her friends as Janelle, got into the truck instead. It was the last time Gonzalez saw her alive.
That night was the beginning of the end of a 12-day killing spree last month that claimed four women and rattled this normally quiet border city. Enriquez was the last of four women who authorities said were murdered by Juan David Ortiz, a 10-year veteran of the U.S. Border Patrol.
Law enforcement officials are still gathering all the evidence in the killings. Isidro Alaniz, district attorney for Webb and Zapata counties, said earlier this month a murder indictment for Ortiz will likely be filed in December. Ortiz, 35, who was arrested hours after his encounter with Gonzalez, allegedly confessed to the killings. He’s being held at Webb County Jail on $2.5 million bond on murder and aggravated assault charges.
Ortiz’s court-appointed attorney, Joey Tellez, released a short statement three days after his client's arrest. Tellez did not respond to several requests for comment.
“We have initiated our own factual investigation of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Ortiz's arrest,” the statement said. “Due to the severity of the accusations and sensitivity of this situation, we will not give any further statements out of respect for the deceased and the families of everyone involved.”
More than a month after the slayings, authorities and friends and families of the victims are all still grappling with a central, unanswered question: Why? What triggered Ortiz, a Navy veteran, husband, father of two and Border Patrol supervisor, to allegedly go on the deadly rampage, meticulously killing woman after woman, police say, with a .40-caliber semi-automatic pistol police believed to be his Border Patrol-issued service weapon?
Ortiz is accused of killing Melissa Ramirez, 29; Claudine Ann Luera, 42; Griselda Alicia Hernandez, 35; and Enriquez. The women all knew each other from San Bernardo, a strip of fast-food restaurants and $40-a-night motels known for its prostitution and drug activity. They were close friends, shared clients and parties with each other, bailed each other out of jail and looked after each other’s kids.
They were often seen crowding around the same bus stop bench on San Bernardo, clowning around or seeking out clients. They left behind sons, daughters, devastated moms and dads and perplexed, angered friends.
“He had no motive, no reason to kill these innocent girls,” Gonzalez said. “He just woke up one day and said, ‘I’m going to kill these prostitutes’? What was his problem?”
Motive may still be a mystery but a picture is emerging of what occurred between Sept. 3, when Ramirez, the first victim, was found dead, and Ortiz’s capture on Sept. 15. Based on interviews with law enforcement officials, court documents and interviews with families and friends of the victims, those 12 days were a roller coaster of terror, sweeping detective work, false leads and killings that shattered family after family.
Monday, Sept. 3
Around noon on Sept. 3, Cristina Benavides, Ramirez’s mom, was driving to the local supermarket with Ramirez’s two children, Cristina, then 7, and Allan, 4, whom Benavides had been caring for since their births.
Ramirez – the third of Benavides’ four children – had been a happy, energetic kid but began slipping into trouble by middle school. She hung out with friends all night and began experimenting with drugs – starting with Xanax tabs and other prescription meds. Benavides received reports from school officials that her daughter was mutilating her arms and face with her own fingernails. At age 17, Benavides took Ramirez to a psychiatrist who diagnosed her as bipolar and prescribed Xanax.
Ramirez was on and off the streets, disappearing for days at a time. Benavides knew she ran in rough circles, at times coming home with a swollen, purple eye or split lip. She would feed Ramirez her favorite dish – picadillo, or ground beef spiced with chili peppers, onions and tomato sauce – mend her up, urge her to stay and pray as Ramirez slipped back into the streets, again and again.
On Labor Day, Benavides scrapped plans to go to the supermarket and asked her grandchildren if they instead wanted to find their mom and go to the movies. “Yes!” they answered.
Benavides cruised past San Bernardo Avenue and ran into Luera on a nearby street. She knew Luera was friends with her daughter and asked if she had seen her.
She hadn't. Benavides asked Luera to have Ramirez call her if she saw her. She gave up on the search and headed home.
That same day, authorities said, Ortiz picked up Ramirez on San Bernardo and drove her 24 miles north out of town to a dirt road in a rural, sparsely traveled stretch of Webb County. When Ramirez exited the truck to relieve herself on the side of the road, he allegedly shot her several times in the head, according to police. A Webb County Sheriff’s deputy later recovered her body following a 911 call.
“I break down crying all the time,” Benavides said. “I cry and I talk to her. I say, ‘Why did you go with him? Why did you get in that truck?’”
Ramirez’s death sparked an investigation at the Webb County Sheriff’s Office in conjunction with the Texas Department of Public Safety, which took the lead on the case. Detectives canvassed San Bernardo Avenue, talking to people who may have known Ramirez and building a profile of the murderer, Webb County Sheriff Chief Federico Garza said.
One early lead that came to investigators was reports of a man who was seen with Ramirez just days before she was killed. Families and friends told police he was in his mid-50s, with a salt-and-pepper beard, and he drove a black truck. Benavides had saved his phone number in her smart phone, since Ramirez had called her from that phone a few times.
Police picked the man up and questioned him the day after Ramirez’s body was found and later released him, but the black truck stuck as a description of the killer's vehicle.
Meanwhile, police believe Ortiz was monitoring the murder investigation from his perch as an intel supervisor for the Border Patrol’s Laredo sector. Border Patrol agents often monitor local murder investigations to help clamp down on human trafficking rings and leads are shared freely and frequently between the agencies, Garza said.
“He was ahead of the curve with the information he was receiving,” he said.
Thursday, Sept. 13
As police looked for the killer, Ortiz allegedly plotted his next move, according to police.
On Sept. 13, he picked up Luera on San Bernardo. Luera was known to her friends as quiet and shy and slightly older than the other women on the avenue but naturally pretty and popular with local clients. While Ramirez could be rowdy and outgoing, Luera was careful and quiet, Gonzalez said.
According to police, Ortiz allegedly drove Luera north outside the city limits, to a rural spot less than 2 miles from where Ramirez's body was found. Luera became nervous, accusing Ortiz of being the last one seen with Ramirez, according to police. He pulled over and she exited the truck. Ortiz followed and allegedly shot her several times in the head, leaving her for dead.
A passing truck driver spotted her and called 911. Luera, still alive, was rushed to a local hospital, where she later died. Police at the scene made a startling discovery: .40-caliber casings, similar to those found at Ramirez’s crime scene.
“Then we knew we had a problem,” Garza said. “A big, big problem.”
The investigation flared: More detectives hit San Bernardo Avenue, talked to motel employees, reviewed security cameras and questioned informants inside the county jail, trying to generate any leads on the shooter, Garza said.
“We were turning every stone that we could in order to receive evidence to get closer to the murderer,” he said.
But detectives were also sniffing down wrong trails. The suspect vehicle was a black truck, then a black Cadillac.
A repeat client and acquaintance of both Ramirez and Luera, a man known in the neighborhood as “Chon,” became a suspect when a pair of Ramirez’s shorts were allegedly found in his car, Gonzalez said. Police raided his home, but he wasn’t arrested.
Investigators struggled to come up with a hard lead on the killer. Then, Ortiz decided to meet up with Erika Peña.
Friday, Sept. 14
Police believe Ortiz knew Peña for more than four months before the killings began. Peña, 26, was known as friendly and outgoing on the strip, with a steady bevy of repeat clients. She was the mother of a 5-year-old daughter.
On Sept. 14, she climbed into Ortiz’s white Dodge Ram truck and the two drove from San Bernardo to Ortiz’s home in the San Isidro Ranch subdivision in north Laredo, according to the arrest affidavit.
“She had prior knowledge to Ortiz, a prior relationship,” said Alaniz, the district attorney. “I don’t know the extent of that relationship, but they were known to each other.”
At his house, Peña brought up Ramirez’s murder, rattling Ortiz.
“His attitude started to change," said Marcela Rodriguez, Peña's aunt. "She told me that he stood in back of her and she felt a rush run from her feet to her head. She started to get sick. She told him, 'I need to go outside to vomit.'"
Peña then convinced Ortiz to drive her to the Valero gas station off Loop 20, about 2 miles from the home. They again started talking about Ramirez and again Ortiz became agitated, according to the arrest affidavit.
Ortiz allegedly pulled out his pistol. When Peña tried to flee the truck, he grabbed her blouse and ripped it off. Peña ran, shirtless and screaming, to a Texas DPS trooper at the gas station.
The trooper took Peña to the Webb County Sheriff’s sub-station on Highway 59, where she was questioned by Texas Rangers and sheriff’s detectives. She recounted the whole story, providing Ortiz's name and the color, make and model of his truck.
Meanwhile, Ortiz returned to his home and began loading an arsenal of weapons he kept there, including several high-powered rifles, pistols and at least one shotgun, Garza said. He was readying for a final, deadly showdown with authorities.
“He’s loading all those weapons and was at the house waiting for us,” Garza said. “You get an idea of what he wanted to do.”
When the police failed to immediately show up, Ortiz left. He drove right back to San Bernardo Avenue.
A short while later, police arrived at Ortiz’s home and searched it, finding the arsenal, around 12 weapons in all, fully loaded.
Saturday, Sept. 15
At around midnight, Ortiz allegedly picked up his third victim, Hernandez, also known as “Shelly” to her friends on San Bernardo. After driving her 20 miles north on Interstate 35, Ortiz pulled over at an overpass, ordered Hernandez out of the truck and allegedly shot her several times in the head, according to the arrest affidavit. He then drove back to Laredo.
At 12:07 a.m., police sent out a BOLO (Be On the Lookout) bulletin for Ortiz, driving a white Dodge Ram pickup truck.
As police cruisers looked for his truck, Ortiz began slowly circling between San Bernardo and San Agustin avenues.
Gonzalez said she and Enriquez were unnerved by the string of recent killings. The slain women had been their friends and they knew the killer was targeting women on the avenue.
Still, they needed money. Workers on the strip generally got as little as $30 per sexual act.
As they tensely walked San Bernardo, Enriquez teased Gonzalez to lighten the mood, telling her the killer probably carried a list of his next victims and wondering aloud who was next.
“That’s not funny,” Gonzalez told her.
“I’m scared, too, but nothing’s going to happen to me,” Enriquez said.
Though she was on alert for a black truck, the white Dodge truck nonetheless spooked her, Gonzalez said. The driver kept stopping to talk to them, then would roar off each time a car approached, she said. After she rejected the driver – whom Gonzalez later identified as Ortiz – the truck parked a block away on San Agustin Avenue.
Gonzalez watched as Enriquez climbed into the truck and disappeared into the night.
Police said Ortiz drove Enriquez north on I-35 to Mile Marker 15, ordered her out of the truck and allegedly shot her once in the back of the head. They would later find Enriquez’s body near gravel mounds on the side of the highway. They also found a .40-caliber slug at the scene, the only one of the crime scenes where police found a slug matching all the other casings.
“It’s heart-breaking,” Gonzalez said. “We knew all four of the victims. We sit down and talk and we cry and we laugh. We remember all the stuff they used to do.”
At around 1 a.m., two DPS troopers caught up to Ortiz at the Valero gas station on San Bernardo and Jefferson Street. He had gone inside to use the restroom, leaving his .40-caliber HK pistol locked in the truck. As he emerged from the convenience store, police approached and tried to Taser him but Ortiz ran off, heading south on foot.
Texas Rangers and a sheriff’s office’s SWAT team finally cornered him in the third floor of the parking garage of the Hotel Ava, two blocks away. He was arrested and taken to the sheriff’s substation on Highway 59 for questioning.
Ortiz initially was uncooperative, denying any involvement in the killings, Alaniz said.
Slowly, as investigators confronted Ortiz with evidence found at the scenes, he began to turn. Ortiz, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, asked if they could remove his handcuffs – then began confessing to the slayings, one by one, Alaniz said.
At around 11 a.m. – nine hours into Ortiz's questioning – police had only recovered three bodies: Ramirez, Luera and Hernandez.
“Is there anybody else?” one of the interrogators asked Ortiz.
“Yes, there’s a tranny,” he said, using the derogatory term for a transgender woman. Ortiz offered the location of Enriquez’s body, according to Alaniz. A group of deputies watching the interrogation on a closed-circuit TV down the hall jumped up and ran out of the room to search for the final body.
Funerals and wakes followed. Friends crowded into funeral homes, dropping pictures and drawings into caskets, and family members hugged and sobbed as their loved ones were lowered into the ground. Enriquez was buried in a ruby red dress, with a red flower tucked into one ear – similar to the red dress Aretha Franklin wore at her public viewing in August. Enriquez had admired that dress so much.
Benavides had Ramirez cremated. Her remains sit in a burgundy box on a table in the kitchen of her trailer home in Rio Bravo, just outside Laredo, next to a smiling picture of Ramirez and a Bible opened to Psalm 89:8 – 90.1. It reads, in part: "Remember how fleeting is my life."
Benavides wants to inter her daughter’s remains in a nearby Catholic cemetery but can’t afford the nearly $3,000 fee for the service. An Austin church started a GoFundMe page for her but is still well short of the required amount. She also needs financial help raising Ramirez’s two young children, she said.
Cristina, who recently turned 8, still cries for her mother, Benavides said. And 4-year-old Allan asks when she'll be visiting them again.
“I tell her, Don’t cry, mi’ja. She’s in a better place than us,” Benavides said. “We’re suffering, but she’s not.”
Contributing: Tim Archuleta, Corpus Christi Caller-Times.
Follow Jervis on Twitter: @MrRJervis.