Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Angela Ortiz says she still deals with the physical and emotional pain every day.
Her parents and brother were murdered in their home in the middle of the night eight years ago. The killer has been convicted but still has not been sentenced.
Ortiz says the experience has changed her.
“It is very, very hard for me to get through each day without some sort of suffering mentally,” Ortiz said in a recent interview.
“… I wake up in a panicked feeling most nights where my heart’s racing 100 mph and it feels like I’m going to have a heart attack. I’ve been to the hospital more than once, with them telling me I’m having a panic attack.”
Ortiz’s parents, Lloyd and Dixie Ortiz, were killed along with her adult brother, Steven Ortiz, in their El Rancho home north of Santa Fe on June 19, 2011 – Father’s Day.
The convicted murderer, Nicholas Ortiz, who was 16 at the time of the killings, wasn’t charged until four years later. He was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and other charges in December 2016. Nicholas Ortiz is not related to the victims but knew the family well.
The terms of his convictions didn’t call for him to have an amenability hearing, in which a young person can present evidence that he or she should be sentenced as a juvenile. The name of the proceeding comes from the stated purpose of determining whether a youthful offender is “amenable” to treatment or rehabilitation as a child.
Still, Ortiz’s attorney, Stephen Taylor, is set to argue next month in District Court that Ortiz, now 24, should in fact get an amenability hearing. Juvenile sentences typically call for incarceration in a juvenile facility for a period that ends with the convict’s 21st birthday or before.
Angela and her older sister, Cherie Ortiz-Rios, are worried that Nicholas won’t spend the rest of his life in prison, despite his convictions for using a pickaxe to bludgeon their three family members to death.
“My fear is that he’s going to get out,” Angela said. “I don’t want the message to be sent that this is OK to do. He took three lives, beautiful lives.”
According to testimony from Nicholas’ two trials, the first of which ended in a mistrial, Nicholas and first cousins Jose and Ashley Roybal planned to burglarize the Ortiz house the night of June 18, 2011. Jose was armed with a sledgehammer and Nicholas took a large pickax. They covered their hands with socks and their shoes with plastic bags.
Jose Roybal didn’t go through with the plan and ran home, but he and Ashley Roybal said Nicholas went on and knocked on the back door around 2 a.m.
Investigators say the evidence shows that the teenager first attacked Lloyd with the pickax when Lloyd answered the door. Lloyd collapsed and died near a tree in the backyard.
Nicholas is said to have then delivered two blows to Dixie’s head with the pickax as she was sleeping in her bed, killing her. Police believe Nicholas then killed Steven after a struggle in the kitchen. Steven was a shaken baby Lloyd and Dixie adopted when he was an infant and had developmental and physical disabilities. He had 21 injuries to his head and body.
Ortiz-Rios, who lived next door, went to the house later that day and found the bodies of her parents and Steven. Investigators initially believed the victims were shot, but their autopsies showed that they died of blunt force trauma. A bloody pickax was found near the house.
Nicholas’ conviction was appealed to the Supreme Court over the wording of jury instructions, but earlier this year the high court sent the case back to District Court for sentencing.
Both Cherie and Angela say their parents, who grew up near each other in the Pojoaque area and got married when they were 18, were caring people who raised their daughters to take in others in need, including Steven, who became a beacon of strength for the sisters.
“When they brought him to us, they said he may not survive the night,” Cherie said of her little brother.
Angela said they were told Steven would never walk or talk, so they started teaching him sign language, but he started talking when he was 4. At the time of his death, Angela said, Steven had the brain of a 9-year-old.
Cherie said she and Steven, who is 12 years younger than she, were close and that she played a big part in raising him. That was one reason she moved next door when she got married.
“Him and I grew up very, very close,” Cherie said. “He went everywhere with me. He was like my kid.”
Angela said Dixie did everything she could to make sure Steven’s needs were met, including taking him to various therapy sessions and court hearings related to his adoption.
“She struggled and pushed to get my brother to just bloom into what he’s capable of being – while dealing with us on the side,” said Angela, who jokes that she and Cherie were not easy on their parents.
Since Dixie was so busy taking care of everyone else, Angela said, Lloyd made it a point to take her out on a date every week. He used to save money in large water jugs for annual trips to Las Vegas, Nev.
Those water jugs were believed to be the target of the trio that planned to burglarize the house the night of the murders. Cherie said her parents were so thoughtful that they probably would have given the culprits the money they were after.
“If any of those (expletive) idiots would have just asked, my parents probably would have given it to them,” Cherie said. “That’s the worst part of it all.”
Angela said her father must have been thinking about the rest of the family in his final moments.
“I can’t even imagine the (expletive) that Dad was thinking, because I know he was just thinking about us,” Angela said. “He was thinking about Steven and mom. I just know my dad, and he was worried about other people while that was happening to him. I know he was, and that kills me.”
Killer stayed with family
Lloyd and Dixie’s generosity rubbed off on Cherie, who also took in children who needed a place to stay, including the boy who would eventually murder her family.
Nicholas, who went to school with Cherie’s son, lived with Cherie and her family for several months because he was apparently having a rough time at home.
Lloyd caught Nicholas in his backyard not long before the murders, and the family believed he was there to steal something. That was the last straw for Cherie and her family, who didn’t allow Nicholas back after that.
Before Nicholas was kicked out, Cherie said stuff started “moving around” in their house. So she and her husband, Jesse Rios, discussed giving Nicholas an allowance, just like their own children.
Cherie said Nicholas’ younger sisters also used to come to her house before and after school when they were young and hang out with the kids who were there for the day care business she ran at her home. Cherie described Nicholas’ sisters as “sweet little girls.”
Both Cherie and Angela say they were hugely relieved when Judge Francis Mathew read the guilty verdicts three years ago. It might still be several months before Nicholas is sentenced, either as a juvenile or an adult.
Angela, who has since moved away from Northern New Mexico, said it took about six months before she could return to her childhood home after the murders, and she said it remains hard to go back.
“I hate going to Pojoaque,” Angela said. “The second I’m driving down that Santa Fe hill, I can feel everything. It takes me away. That is my hometown, and it has been so hard to readjust to a place I’m just not familiar with.”
Even though it has been eight years since the murders, Angela says she still feels pain everyday. She has a puzzle piece tattooed on her hand with the infamous date – “6-19-11” – and says it represents the “missing piece” in her life.
“I drag myself out of bed every morning,” Angela said. “I don’t want to get out of bed. I want to sleep it away, because that is the only time I’m not thinking about this. Every (expletive) day I’m thinking about what I lost, what she (Cherie) lost, what we all lost.”