Corrections & clarifications: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the mission of the Death Penalty Information Center.
LAREDO, Texas – Prosecutors will seek the death penalty for Juan David Ortiz, a U.S. Border Patrol agent charged with killing four women around Laredo this year.
Ask Patricia Ortiz, an aunt to Nikki Enriquez, one of the victims, and she'd be OK if he just spent the rest of his life in prison.
“I’m a good believer in God, and I know God will take care of this situation,” she said. “I can’t say I want to see him die.”
Wednesday's announcement that prosecutors will seek the death penalty for Ortiz, 35, split families and friends over whether the alleged killer should die or spend a lifetime in prison.
Texas by far leads the nation in putting convicted criminals to death, with 511 executions, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based research group that has criticized the way capital punishment is administered in America. Virginia is in far-off second, with 113, followed by Oklahoma with 112.
The Texas borderlands – largely Hispanic, Catholic and generally anti-death-penalty – see things differently.
Cristina Benavides, mother of Melissa Ramirez, another victim, said she suffers from crying bouts when she thinks of her daughter’s slaying and has barely slept in the three months since her death. She said she wants to see Ortiz suffer the same way her family has but doesn’t think the death penalty is the right choice.
“Let God apply justice,” she said. “God is knowing. He’s watching him.”
Authorities allege that Ortiz, a 10-year veteran of the Border Patrol, picked up four women – Ramirez, 29; Claudine Luera, 42; Guiselda Alicia Cantu, 35; and Enriquez, 28 – on different occasions from Sept. 3 to 14, drove them to remote locations and killed each with gunshots to the head. All the women were sex workers who congregated around San Bernardo Avenue in Laredo, known for its sex and drug trade.
Ortiz, 35, was arrested after a fifth woman fled from his truck and alerted police. He was charged with four counts of murder and has been held at the Webb County Jail on $2.5 million bond. Officials described him as a "serial" killer.
Isidro Alaniz, district attorney for Webb and Zapata Counties, said at a news conference Wednesday that Ortiz, who was indicted on one count of capital murder, showed a consistent "scheme" in the killings. All the women except Ramirez knew they were going to die soon after entering his truck, he said.
It's only the second time in 25 years that Webb County prosecutors will seek the death penalty, Alaniz said.
"Ortiz preyed on the weak, the sick, the vulnerable," he said. "San Bernardo was his hunting ground. What does that make him? That makes him a predator."
Texas law mandates a trial in death penalty cases. An arraignment is expected in the next 30 days, Alaniz said.
In a tearful statement after the indictment was read, Colette Mireles, Luera's sister, said she was "leaning on faith" to get through this difficult time and the emotional days before a protracted trial.
"God has the last word, and God is what gives us the strength to move forward," she said.
She said, "In my heart, I just want what's right. We're no one to wish death on anybody. But we know God has the last word. Whatever the outcome, justice will prevail."
Karina Ramos and Kristian Montemayor, Luera's nieces, said they were split on their desire of punishment for Ortiz, if he's convicted: Ramos wants him to spend the rest of his life in prison; Montemayor would prefer to see him executed.
Ramos, 29, said Ortiz was suicidal as police caught up to him and probably wants to die. A long prison sentence thinking of his alleged acts is worse punishment, she said.
Montemayor, 24, said he deserves to die for the pain he brought to her family and other families. "He'll be in jail, comfortable, eating three times a day," she said. "He doesn't deserve to be alive."
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