“Hey man, good getting to know you,” I said to David as we checked out of Fort Sam Houston. “Good luck with the Border Patrol.”
He smiled and shook my hand. “Be good,” he said.
I was a mess. After nearly five years of service in the Navy, including a year-long combat deployment to Afghanistan, I was being medically retired for injuries I’d sustained and for a subsequent right ankle fracture I’d suffered back home while driving my car into a guard rail — the consequence of an adverse reaction to the sleep medication Ambien. From the pain, I’d developed an opioid addiction, which did not mesh well with my post-deployment binge drinking. I was hopelessly depressed, aimless, resentful; deeply unsettled by the violence I’d borne witness to and uncertain of my future.
But David was different.
He was a squared-away sailor who really had his act together. At the Defense Medical Readiness and Training Institute in San Antonio, where we worked together, he was liked by all. I remember he told me he was part of the invasion force for Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. He had been a corpsman providing boots-on-the-ground medical support to a Marine unit. I was a corpsman too, though I’d never deployed to Iraq.
The institute was a joint-military command comprised of medical personnel from the three services. Our mission was to prepare military doctors, nurses and other medical professionals for deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. David took his duties very seriously and received high marks on his evaluations. And he was a friend to me.
That makes the crimes he’s accused of difficult to digest: On September 15, Juan David Ortiz reportedly confessed to the killings of four women and attempting to kill of a fifth in Laredo. He has since been indicted and prosecutors have said they will seek the death penalty.
When I realized that this was the same man I knew and worked with in the Navy, I was blown away. As I’ve relayed the story to family and friends, they’ve all come back at me with the same series of questions: Was he weird? Could you tell he was off?
The answer is a resounding no. He was not weird. He was not off. He was completely normal. In fact, I admired him. He was senior to me and was a more experienced corpsman. He assigned me the nickname vato loco, (crazy gangster) probably because I always looked like I was high on pain meds.
Since his confession, I have been trying to reconcile the warm memories I have of him with the unbelievably cruel, callous nature of the crimes he’s accused of committing. The women he victimized were among the most vulnerable members of our society. One of them was transgender. Authorities say David picked them up, gained their trust, drove them outside the city limits, ordered them out of the truck and shot them execution style with his pistol, leaving their bodies to rot.
After his arrest, David reportedly told authorities that he wanted to “eradicate all prostitutes.” It seems to me that a deep hatred of women underpinned his actions. And David is not the only Border Patrol agent from Laredo facing a murder charge. On April 10, Border Patrol Agent Ronald Anthony Burgos-Aviles was charged with the homicide of his girlfriend, Grizelda Hernandez and their 1-year-old son Dominick. Burgos-Aviles is currently in the Webb County Jail, the same detention facility where David is being held.
Needless to say, these high-profile murder cases reflect poorly on the Border Patrol. Members of Congress have questioned Border Patrol’s parent agency over its hiring practices. Their concern is whether or not Border Patrol overlooked any potential “red flags” when hiring David. I must reiterate that I saw nothing unusual about him. I’m confident that no one who knew him saw this coming. There’s no lesson here; nothing could have prevented this. Some people just break bad.
In the years since David and I last spoke, my life took a reckless and dangerous turn for a few years before righting itself. I’ve been totally clean and sober for several years now. I don’t even drink coffee anymore.
When I parted ways with David, it seemed like he was headed for greater things and I was on the wrong path. Funny how things work out sometimes.