Monday, March 17, 2008

Ortiz is off streets, but tales of brutality keep emerging

Star-Telegram Staff Writers

This series contains explicit language and graphic descriptions of violence.

Editor's note: To Catch a Killer is the true story of killer Andy James Ortiz, his young victims, and the Fort Worth police and Tarrant County prosecutors who brought him to justice.

The story so far

After being arrested, murder suspect Andy Ortiz sat in silence through an interrogation, leaving police to continue looking into the possibility that he killed many girls and young women.


On the night Andy Ortiz was finally arrested in the murder of Brenda Salazar, Fort Worth police Sgt. Joe Thornton drove to another clapboard house just a few blocks from where the criminal was taken down. Armida Garcia's parents and younger brother still lived on Denver Avenue. When they greeted the officer that night, Thornton told them that Ortiz had been arrested on a capital murder charge and that this time, he would probably be put away for good.

A day later, on Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2000, Armida's brother stood on the front steps of his home, talking quietly to a newspaper reporter. Yes, Fernando Garcia said in almost a whisper, he and his family were relieved and happy that Ortiz was off the streets. But no arrest could bring Armida back, the teenager said. No arrest could erase Fernando's memories of the night in August three years before when he came home to find his 15-year-old sister lying dead on the floor of their parents' bedroom, laces from his own tennis shoes tied around her neck.

That day on the porch, Fernando also referred to 13-year-old Krystal Minjarez, who had been murdered in much the same way as his sister.

"We're just hoping that this time it will stick," Fernando said.

That same day, in Austin, Brenda Salazar's aunt Gracie Eguia answered her telephone and was surprised to hear Detective Curt Brannan's deep Texas drawl.

The last time Salazar's family had heard from the Fort Worth detective, he said his investigation into Salazar's murder had stalled. But now he was calling to say that police had arrested someone, a guy who was suspected of killing other girls, too. (The detective called Eguia first because Salazar's parents did not speak English.)

Eguia quickly called Brenda's parents, Fermin and Rosa Maria Salazar, at their home in the South Texas town of San Juan. They burst into tears.

"I just thought it was going to be unsolved for years," Eguia told a reporter who called after Ortiz was arrested. "Everyone is crying. My niece called this morning after she saw it on the news. She couldn't believe it."

In Crowley, just south of Fort Worth, Victoria Curtis stood outside her trailer home, talking to a reporter that same day. Krystal Minjarez was Curtis' 13-year-old niece. A month before, the girl had slipped out of the trailer in the middle of the night, gone to a friend's home and left with a guy named Jaime. Curtis never saw her alive again.

"I am so glad," Curtis said after she learned of the arrest. "A big weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I don't know how [Ortiz] managed to stay out of trouble for so long. I just want him off the streets."

What about the other cases?

On Thursday, Aug. 17, Brannan walked from police headquarters to the office of chief felony prosecutor Alan Levy. The homicide detective dropped off a summary of the evidence linking Ortiz to the Salazar killing. This time, Levy said, because of the DNA and fingerprint evidence, he would eagerly accept the case for prosecution. Such strong evidence would make it a matter of routine in most murder cases, but not in this one, not after bitter disagreements between police and prosecutors in the Armida Garcia case three years before. Both Brannan and Levy were relieved.

Yet so many questions remained about Ortiz. He was the primary suspect in the murders of Armida and Krystal, but so far the evidence against him in those two cases was insufficient to move forward. Krystal's body was so badly decomposed that any chance of obtaining physical evidence had been lost.

The crime lab had not been able to positively link the ligature around her neck with wire found during a search at Ortiz's home.

Brannan and the prosecutors decided to revisit every known aspect of Armida's case. As a result, the physical evidence, including the girl's fingernail clippings and hair fibers found on her body, would be sent to an independent laboratory for DNA analysis.

While reviewing the evidence, Brannan, Levy and Tarrant County prosecutor Robert Foran learned that Armida's fingernail clippings had not been tested for DNA three years earlier at the suggestion of the Fort Worth crime lab.

The three men were stunned. Why hadn't such a potentially crucial piece of evidence been analyzed?

Sordid stories

The most haunting question of all was whether Ortiz had killed others and, if so, how many? Brannan remembered what investigators found inside Ortiz's bedroom, all the sickening photos and the phone numbers, which suggested that more young women might have died at his hands. What's more, after seeing the story of Ortiz's arrest in the newspapers or on television, one young woman after another called Brannan in the homicide unit to report her own sordid experience with the longtime predator.

"We're getting all these calls and getting a clearer picture of who that sorry jerk really was," Brannan said recently. "The thrust of my involvement in these other cases is to better understand Ortiz and his methods of operation. Maybe one of them had escaped from his assault or maybe he had tried to get one of them out to Marine Creek [Lake]. Not all of them were about sexual assaults. Some just called to say what a jerk ... this guy was, how he kept calling and calling."

Their stories fell into a familiar pattern. Just as Ortiz had approached Armida and Krystal at random (Brannan was unable to determine how Ortiz had met Brenda Salazar), the other females described how he used his incessant pickup lines during chance encounters at convenience stores, carwashes, concerts and shopping malls. He almost always called himself "Jaime," and he kept up his routine until a girl or young woman gave him her cellphone number. Many rewarded his perseverance by agreeing to dates.

One woman told Brannan that around the time of Armida's slaying, she had briefly dated Ortiz and had been stalked by him for weeks after ending the relationship. Ortiz had threatened to kill her, she said. (The women are not being identified because of the nature of the crimes.)

Another young woman told Brannan about the time Ortiz forced her younger cousin into his house. The girl was weeping when she emerged two hours later but would not discuss what had happened.

Then Ortiz started calling the woman and her cousin, saying he would "get them no matter what."

Still another woman described meeting Ortiz on the street in 1997 and accepting an invitation to his home. She said he began to assault her almost the moment they were behind closed doors, ripping at her clothes and saying he would kill her if she did not submit. The attempted rape was thwarted by a knock on the front door.

"He told me that I had better watch where I go because he would be watching me," she told Brannan. "I would see Andy sitting outside my house, watching me. One night, I went out and Andy followed me for an hour. I have never made any police reports about any of this because I was so scared."

Another woman called Brannan to say that in the month before Ortiz's arrest, she was washing a car when Ortiz pulled up in his pickup and asked for her number. She eventually gave it to him and agreed to visit his place. On the night of her visit, Ortiz let her in through the back door and they sat on his bed, talking about television and music. Then she picked up a photo album that was lying around.

"There was a lot of pictures of girls posing in bikinis," she told Brannan. There were "some of him and his friends ... and some naked girls. ... When I pulled one out, there was a picture of a girl's vagina and he told me not to look at it.

"... He took the album away, and we started having a conversation about me having a boyfriend. I told him my boyfriend was black, and he got upset about that and said that I was a Mexican and I should stick to my own kind. I was too pretty to be with a black guy. ... He was making gestures and moving his arms. I told him that I did not want to talk about it anymore."

She was fortunate: Ortiz's anger did not lead to violence against her.

That was not true for a woman who was crying when she called Brannan late on the afternoon of Aug. 22. Several weeks before, she said, she had met Ortiz at a lowrider show in Dallas and agreed to go out with him. He later raped her inside her home, she said. She had been hiding at a relative's house in Mansfield until she heard of Ortiz's arrest.

On Aug. 24, Brannan met with a girl at police headquarters. In July 1997, she was just a few days shy of her 13th birthday when, she said, Ortiz raped her in her home, threatening to strangle her with a telephone cord.

Both the woman who met him at the lowrider show and the girl who was attacked in July 1997 later picked Ortiz from a photo lineup, and aggravated-rape charges were added to the capital murder charge. Brannan and other officers, meanwhile, continued to pore over missing-persons reports from across North Texas, looking for young women who might have had something in common with Ortiz.

Though they never found evidence linking him to more deaths, Brannan would always worry that other young lives had been snuffed out by the predator.

Tomorrow: Brannan finds a crucial witness.


Sept. 4, 1991: Andy Ortiz is accused of kidnapping a 13-year-old girl. That charge is dismissed when Ortiz agrees to a nine-year sentence for earlier burglaries. He is paroled after nine months.

Aug. 8, 1993: Ortiz is accused of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl, but the case doesn't go to trial. He returns to jail on a parole violation and serves one year.

Early 1995: Ortiz first meets 13-year-old Armida Garcia and gets her number.

Summer 1996: Nineteen-year-old Brenda Salazar moves to North Texas to pursue a job in the airline industry.

Early 1997: Ortiz meets a 15-year-old named Anna.

May 26, 1997: Salazar's roommate discovers Salazar's body in their apartment.

July 9, 1997: A 12-year-old girl is raped by a man matching Ortiz's description; she does not pursue the case at that time.

Aug. 3, 1997: Garcia is strangled in her parents' bedroom.

Aug. 8, 1997: Ortiz is arrested in the Garcia killing; Detective Joe Thornton tries to get Ortiz to confess but is unsuccessful.

Fall 1997: The Salazar murder case grows cold.

Late 1997: Ortiz is jailed on parole violations; he corresponds with Anna.

January 1998: Thornton gets a tip about Ortiz fleeing from Garcia's home the night of the killing, but he can't find the witness.

July 1999: Ortiz is released from jail; he moves in with Anna's family.

Jan. 29, 2000: Ortiz marries Anna.

March 8, 2000: Ortiz is kicked out of the house by his mother-in-law.

July 18, 2000: Krystal Minjarez, 13, sneaks out and is picked up by a man named "Jaime." She calls a friend to say she is at his home.

July 21, 2000: Minjarez's body is found at Marine Creek Lake.

July 25, 2000: After finding Ortiz's address listed in Minjarez's address book, Detective Curt Brannan gets a search warrant.

July 26, 2000: Ortiz agrees to talk with Brannan and implicates an acquaintance, Michael Olguin, in the Minjarez killing.

Aug. 10, 2000: Brannan acts on a hunch, reviewing physical evidence to connect Ortiz to the Salazar killing.

Aug. 11, 2000: Brannan finds out that a fingerprint on Salazar's car belongs to Ortiz; the print apparently was never run through the system in 1997.

Aug. 13, 2000: Olguin wears a wire and tries to get Ortiz to confess; he is unsuccessful.

Aug. 15, 2000: Brannan finds out that DNA evidence from Salazar's body matches Ortiz; Ortiz is arrested.

On TV: A Star-Telegram documentary about Andy Ortiz's crimes will debut at 8 p.m. Sunday on KTXA/Channel 21.
Tim Madigan, 817-390-7544

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