SAN ANTONIO – A prostitute whose terrifying encounter with a Border Patrol agent led to his arrest for the deaths of four women near Laredo testified against him Monday in a Bexar County courtroom.
Erika Peña is a key witness for the prosecution in the trial of Juan David Ortiz, whose trial was moved from Webb County after a change of venue was granted.
Ortiz is charged in the 2018 slayings of Melissa Ramirez, Claudia Anne Luera, Griselda Cantu and Jannelle Ortiz, who were all found dead with gunshot wounds within weeks of each other off Interstate 35 north of Laredo.
Peña, who testified that she gets paid to have sex with men, told jurors that she knew all the victims.
She testified that on Sept. 18, 2018, Ortiz picked her up on a street corner and took her to his house. She said that the defendant “wasn’t himself and was very nervous” prior to entering the house after she had mentioned the killings.
Peña told the jury that Ortiz was afraid that he was going to be asked to submit his DNA in connection with the death of one of the victims.
The witness testified that she started getting nervous and scared, and was vomiting “because she got this feeling” that “he was the one who was murdering.”
Ortiz then told her she needed some food and drove to a Circle K convenience store, where he parked his pickup truck behind an 18-wheeler behind the store, she testified.
Moments after telling Ortiz to take her back to the intersection where he originally picked her up, Peña said that he grabbed a gun and stared at her. A struggle began as she tried to get away.
“He pointed it right at my face,” Peña testified.
She then made a run for it.
“Someway, somehow, I took off running without my shirt,” she testified. “I took off running, I snapped.”
Peña said that she ran to the front of the store where she encountered DPS Trooper Francisco Hernandez, who was fueling his patrol vehicle.
Hernandez testified that Peña was in shock, hyperventilating, and scared and that she had been assaulted by someone named David. Hernandez then took her to a police station, where Peña told investigators about the assault that would eventually lead to Ortiz’s arrest.
Defense attorney Joel Perez tried to discredit Peña’s testimony by having her admit that she was a prostitute mainly to support her daily $300-$400 addiction to heroin and crack. Peña also admitted that a relative is caring for her child due to her drug habit.
Perez also brought up the fact that Peña said she is now taking methadone and asked her if she knew what it was for.
“Are you aware that methadone is synthetic heroin?” Perez asked her. Peña replied, “I know what methadone is ... and it doesn’t trigger the need to use heroin.”
Perez also asked Peña if she was on drugs the night she ran up to the trooper, to which she replied, “I was high but I knew what was going on.”
The defense attorney brought up the fact that Peña previously testified in a pretrial hearing that Ortiz had pointed the gun at her chest, and not her face, as she had told jurors.
When Perez asked her if she was lying, Peña said, “never.”
Perez also asked her if she had been arrested for violent crimes, including an April 2019 incident where she assaulted a peace officer.
When Peña replied that she couldn’t recall the crime, Perez asked her, “you’re telling me that you don’t know what you were arrested for?”
The trial is schedule to resume at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. KSAT 12 will be streaming the entire proceedings, from gavel to gavel, on KSAT.com, KSAT Plus and YouTube.
If convicted of capital murder, Ortiz faces life in prison without parole because prosecutors are not seeking the death penalty.