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Jose Ortega was found face-down near some chamisa bushes in Veguita last week. His clothing had been ripped from his body. The 53-year-old was covered in bite marks and had been dead for several hours.
Nearby, a pack of dogs – some with blood on their faces – barked at a responding Socorro County lawman from behind a fence as their owner, 54-year-old Dominic Ribera, attempted to cover a hole in the barricade that was surrounded by dog tracks.
Before the day was up, the deputy put two bullets into one dog’s skull and an animal control officer pepper sprayed several other canines that tried to attack him as the two men tried to round up the animals.
In all, 10 pit bull mixes, including six puppies, were seized. The four adult dogs were put down, including the one that was shot.
Details of the investigation into Ortega’s death were outlined in court documents.
“I knew his dogs were vicious, we all knew that something was going to happen,” said Ortega’s niece, Leslie Martinez. She said her uncle had gone to water the plants at the home of Ribera’s neighbor – something he was paid $10 to do – when the attack happened.
“He couldn’t fight the dogs off, he wasn’t strong enough,” Martinez said. She said Ortega was disabled and had a litany of health issues.
Ribera is charged with felony counts of possession of a dangerous dog, or in the alternative involuntary manslaughter and tampering with evidence in the May 24 death of Ortega. He is also facing a misdemeanor count of failure to report a death.
His attorney did not respond to a message seeking comment.
Ribera’s criminal history includes charges of negligent use of a deadly weapon, criminal damage to property and resisting, evading or obstructing an officer.
In 2018, his family called 911 to have him removed from the home because they were in “constant fear” of Ribera, who had several guns and was up “all hours of the night” screaming at people who weren’t there.
Concerning the recent dog attack, according to a criminal complaint filed in Magistrate Court:
Deputies responded around 2:30 p.m. to reports of a man mauled by dogs in a neighborhood in western Veguita, southwest of Belen. Martinez flagged deputies down and led them to the body.
Ribera was standing near several barking dogs behind a fence that was “not adequate to contain animals of this violent nature.” The deputy radioed dispatch to tell them he may have to shoot the dogs in self-defense.
An animal control officer arrived and used pepper spray when several dogs tried to attack him, and the deputy killed another due to its “violent and aggressive nature.”
Ribera told the deputy he heard the dogs “making noise” around 11 a.m. and he heard a human voice when he turned down the TV. He said he found Ortega on the ground outside and used a stick to get the dogs away from him.
Ribera told the deputy he was going to attempt CPR but poked Ortega with the stick and realized he was dead. He said he didn’t call 911 because he didn’t have a phone.
Authorities noted that he waited three hours “despite the fact” that there were numerous neighbors in the area, including the victim’s family.
A neighbor called Martinez and told her she needed to come right away.
“He said, ‘Dominic’s dogs killed your uncle,” Martinez said.
Martinez said the dogs had attacked her chickens and previously came after her and her boyfriend.
Ribera told the deputy one of the dogs, named Cocoa, had recently bit a neighbor but the man didn’t want to press charges.
Martinez said the neighbor who called her had recently killed one of the dogs for attacking his animals. She said there had been numerous calls to authorities about the dogs and people had confronted Ribera about chaining the dogs, but he refused.
“It could’ve been anybody – a kid – we told Dominic so many times … ‘You need to take care of those dogs because it’s going to come back to you, too, not just the dogs.’ … He just wouldn’t do anything, ” she said. “He said he loved his dogs, he wanted to keep his dogs. Every time they had puppies he wanted to keep them all.”
Martinez said Ortega was a “people person” who loved to help the neighbors and was “very respectful.” She said her uncle, who had no wife or kids, loved his American pit bull “Huero” more than anything.
Martinez said she will miss him dearly.
“He was my best friend and we always talked to each other about anything and everything,” she said. “He always told me, ‘Make a family, don’t be like this, I don’t want to see you like this.’ He always wanted me to be better.”