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Healdsburg father who drowned daughter sentenced to 11 years

Almost five years after Gerardo Mendoza Ordaz drowned his 4-year-old daughter, Maria, in a church baptismal pool and spent months in a psychiatric hospital, it took a judge just three minutes Wednesday to sentence him to 11 years in prison.

Ordaz told investigators that he was on a methamphetamine binge and hadn’t slept in three days, coming to believe he must exorcize “the devil” inside his two youngest children with “holy water” from church.

He admitted to drowning his youngest, Maria Jose Ordaz Chavarria, in the 1- to 2-foot deep, cross-shaped pool on Nov. 20, 2016, inside St. John’s Catholic Church in Healdsburg.

The 11-year sentence was predetermined, part of a negotiated plea to manslaughter that Ordaz agreed to as he was facing trial on murder charges, which could have put him in prison for 25 years to life.

The plea deal avoided what likely would have been an extremely emotional public trial for him and his family, reliving the night he killed his daughter in a fog of drug-fueled delusions.

Ordaz’s nephew, Alex Castellanos Ordaz, said the family is doing well. Two of Ordaz’s sisters were among those who attended the hearing Wednesday. Castellanos said the family was hopeful that Ordaz can work on his mental health issues in prison and perhaps emerge in a better place.

But it was clear the judge wasn’t pleased with Ordaz’s explanation of how his daughter died at his hands five years ago next month.

Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Robert LaForge told Ordaz, 47, that several statements he made to probation officers before Wednesday’s hearing were objectionable.

“Certainly, I’m going to give you the maximum allowed by law based on what I read,” LaForge said. “There were a couple things that were concerning. Your statement was concerning, minimizing. I want you to know that.”

LaForge was referring to Ordaz’s comments to a probation officer, who prepared a presentencing report and recommendation to the court.

In the lengthy report, Ordaz at first glossed over what he did to his daughter, saying he “gave her water” but never submerged her.

“He commented that when he gave her water, her hair ‘went up’ (levitated) and he was afraid, so he gave her more water with his hand,” the report said.

He said “she drowned and made a noise” and he went to find the police to get help.

“That’s how this tragedy happened,” he said.

He claimed Maria “did not cry or scream” before she died.

Investigators said after Ordaz killed Maria, he carried her wet, lifeless body to the rear of the nearby police department, where he yelled for help.

Prompted by his attorney to further explain his actions, Ordaz during the interview said he had recently begun smoking methamphetamine again, which he hid from his wife, and had begun to see and hear things.

Asked if he “dunked” Maria, even for a second or multiple times, Ordaz said “while he was holding his daughter and feeding her holy water, she made a sound and he lowered her and told her to drink more water. He acknowledged he may have put her under briefly but then later communicated again that he never submerged her,” according to the report.

He said he went to the church in search of “holy water,” which he said is a tradition in the Catholic Church “to help get rid of demons inside someone, like an exorcism.” He believed he could get rid of the “spirits in himself and his children” with the water, according to the report.

Asked if he accepted responsibility for Maria’s death, even if he thought he was helping her, Ordaz said he “recognized he had some part in the incident.”

According to court documents, following three days of no sleep while he binged on crystal meth, Ordaz began to believe his two youngest children were “being attacked by evil.”

On that cool November evening, he took his two youngest children, Maria, 4, and her brother, 9, on a walk from their home on the north end of Healdsburg to St. John’s about a mile and a half away, looking for a priest who he apparently believed could rid the children of the evil presence.

Finding the sanctuary empty, Ordaz decided to try on his own, leading the children into the large baptismal pool.

Last month, as a jury was being seated for his murder trial, Ordaz agreed to plead no contest to voluntary manslaughter and child abuse charges, reducing a potential 25 years-to-life sentence to 11 years.

He also gave up credit for the nearly five years he’s been in custody since the killing, starting the clock for his sentence on Wednesday.

Ordaz also pleaded no contest to child abuse related to the emotional suffering caused to his son, the only witness to the killing, who, now age 14, likely would have been called to testify against his father had the case gone to trial.

Prosecutors offered the lesser sentence, knowing that proving the intent necessary for a murder charge could have been difficult, given Ordaz’s intoxication level and mental health issues. Voluntary manslaughter doesn’t require a similar intent.

After Ordaz was charged, his attorney raised questions about his mental competency and two psychologists agreed he wasn’t fit to participate in his defense. He was sent to Napa State Hospital for treatment in early 2017 and legal proceedings were suspended until 2019, when doctors said his mental competency had been restored.

Ordaz, a day laborer and farmworker, moved with his family from Sacramento to Healdsburg for work about six months before the killing. He and his wife, who was pregnant at the time, also have two older children in addition to the boy and little Maria.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

Lori A. Carter

 Sonoma County courts and Rohnert Park, The Press Democrat

Local journalism is vital to a community's wellbeing, and that means keeping an eye on what happens in our justice system and our communities. I cover Sonoma County courts, as well as the city of Rohnert Park. In my work, I want to share the stories that affect our daily lives and, yes, maybe even rile us up. 

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