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The trial for a former border patrol agent accused of killing four sex workers has begun.
Juan David Ortiz, 39, appeared in a San Antonio courtroom on Monday to face prosecution for the shooting deaths of four women and the injury of a fifth, according to CBS San Antonio affiliate KENS. Ortiz’s alleged victims were killed within a 10-day window in September 2018, their bodies disposed of on rural roads around Laredo, Texas.
Ortiz has been charged with four counts of murder, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, and unlawful restraint.
Ortiz once allegedly told investigators that he wanted to “eradicate all the prostitutes,” including the ones he befriended and allegedly killed.
Webb County District Attorney Isidro Alaniz said Monday that Ortiz sought to “clean up the streets” within a community “that is defenseless and that has little to no credibility,” according to KENS. (The trial was slated to begin in Webb County before a change of venue was approved to hold proceedings in Bexar County).
One of the first called to the stand was witness Erika Peña, whom Ortiz is accused of assaulting.
According to her testimony, she’d known Ortiz for about five months and considered him a friend, according to KENS. She admitted prostitution was a means of supporting her heroin addiction and that Ortiz was one of her regular clients.
On Sept. 14, 2018, she initially met Ortiz at his Laredo residence, according to charging documents reviewed by Oxygen.com. While there, Ortiz allegedly “began to act weird” at the mention of Melissa Ramirez – an acquaintance of Peña – who was found murdered 10 days earlier.
Becoming unnerved by his demeanor, Peña went outside and got sick in the front yard.
“I just felt scared and nauseous,” Peña told jurors on Monday. “I just got this feeling that maybe he was the one that had been murdering.”
By then, Peña had caught wind that three bodies had been discovered prior to said encounter with Ortiz, telling the court that “all the girls were watching their backs,” KENS reported.
After Peña fell ill, Ortiz allegedly helped her into his pickup truck before driving to a Laredo gas station, where Ortiz produced a black pistol when returning to the topic of Melissa Ramirez, according to Peña. Ortiz allegedly tried to prevent Peña from exiting his truck, ripping her shirt off in the process.
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Peña then flagged down Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) Trooper Francisco Hernandez at the gas station.
“I took off running,” Peña testified. “I snapped.”
On Monday, Hernandez also took the stand, guiding jurors through body cam footage from when Peña approached him and asked for help.
He claimed Peña was in shock and hyperventilating, according to ABC San Antonio affiliate KSAT-TV.
Ortiz’s defense attorney questioned Peña on the stand, asking the witness about her current methadone dependency and alleged inconsistencies concerning whether Ortiz pointed the gun at her chest (as she testified in a pre-trial hearing) or in her face, according to KSAT-TV.
Peña also admitted to being high when Ortiz allegedly attacked her.
On Sept. 4, 2018 – 10 days before Peña’s ordeal – the body of Melissa Ramirez, 29, was found dead in northwestern Webb County. According to investigators, the mother of two was shot in the head the previous day.
On Sept. 13, 2018 – just one day before Pena’s attack – the body of 42-year-old Claudine Luera was found just two miles from Ramirez’s body. She, too, was shot in the head but initially survived the shooting.
Luera succumbed to her injuries later in the day.
Peña would have been Ortiz’s third alleged victim, but instead led authorities to Ortiz’s residence, though there was no sign of the suspect, prompting a BOLO alert for his truck.
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Ortiz was spotted at a local gas station before fleeing from officers on foot, according to the affidavit. He was captured in the early morning of Sept. 15 while allegedly hiding in a hotel parking garage and charged with evading arrest.
During the hours between when Peña escaped and Ortiz’s capture, Ortiz allegedly went on to murder 28-year-old transgender woman Janelle Ortiz and Griselda Cantu, per charging documents.
Both victims were shot in the head.
Ortiz allegedly confessed to all four murders while in police custody.
On Monday, defense attorney Perez argued his client was coerced into a false confession, KENS reported.
“He’s broken, he’s suicidal, he wants his family taken care of. He doesn’t know where he’s going to go, and he starts saying, ‘There, I did it,’” Perez said in court. “No one can come here and tell you beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Ortiz is the trigger man with that firearm that killed these women.”
Ortiz was a 10-year veteran of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and worked as an intel supervisor, a position he reportedly took advantage of to glean information about the murder investigation, according to USA Today. He also served as a corpsman in the U.S. Navy between 2001 and 2009, earning a ribbon for rifle marksmanship. He also earned a Master’s degree from St. Mary's University.
Colleagues and acquaintances were surprised by the accusations against Ortiz, described as a husband and father who lived a quiet, suburban life.
The trial is expected to continue Tuesday.