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Healdsburg father who drowned his 4-year-old daughter pleads to voluntary manslaughter

Gerardo Mendoza Ordaz had been doing crystal methamphetamine for three days and began believing his two youngest children were “being attacked by evil.” So he took them to a church in search of a priest.

Finding none, Ordaz and his children waded into the St. John’s Catholic Church baptismal pool because he believed “the holy water would get the devil out of their bodies.” He told police he drank the water and tried to get his children to drink it as well.

His 4-year-old daughter, Maria Jose Ordaz Chavarria, lost consciousness and eventually died.

Facing a potential 25-years-to-life sentence if convicted of drowning his daughter, Ordaz pleaded no contest Wednesday to voluntary manslaughter.

The agreement with prosecutors, as the jury was about to be seated, will avoid what surely would have been an extremely public, emotional trial for Ordaz and his family reliving the night he killed Maria in that Healdsburg Catholic church pool five years ago.

The negotiated plea means Ordaz, 47, faces a term of 11 years in prison. He's set to be sentenced on Oct. 15 by Judge Robert LaForge.

Ordaz also pleaded no contest to child abuse related to the emotional suffering caused to his son, a witness to his sister’s killing, Ordaz’s attorney Sarah Grenfell said.

Ordaz also waived credit for the nearly five years he’s been in custody since the Nov. 20, 2016 killing, meaning the clock starts on his 11 years once he is sentenced, Chief Deputy District Attorney Brian Staebell said.

“Gerardo mourns the loss of his daughter every day,” Grenfell said. “It was painful for him to appear in court and he cried during each day of jury selection. Gerardo loved his daughter with all his heart and never intended to harm her.”

An offer of 15 years to life had been pending for some time. Ordaz rejected that offer at least once and appeared to be ready take his chances at a trial. But as jury selection was set to wrap up this week in Sonoma County Superior Court, Ordaz agreed to the manslaughter deal.

Given Ordaz’s methamphetamine intoxication and mental health issues, proving the intent necessary for a murder charge may have been challenging. Voluntary manslaughter is more simply the unlawful killing of someone without malice.

It appears Ordaz did not set out to kill his daughter, Staebell said.

“He was under the belief that he was trying to get the devil out of his child,” he said. “In terms of his mindset, he did not have the specific intent to kill his child.”

According to court records, Ordaz told investigators that he had been smoking crystal meth for three days and hadn’t slept in that time.

The evening of Maria’s death, investigators said, Ordaz and his two youngest children began walking from their home on the north end of Healdsburg about 5:45 p.m. and walked about 1½ miles to downtown. Along the way they made at least three stops, at two convenience stores where they purchased drinks and another downtown shop.

At some point, investigators said, Ordaz took them inside the open sanctuary of the Catholic church. Ordaz said he wanted to find a priest to rid his children of evil.

The church, which was routinely left unlocked on Sunday evenings, was empty. Ordaz then led his children to the 8-by-10-foot, cross-shaped baptismal pool, court documents show.

It wasn’t clear how long the trio was inside the church, but police said by 8:30 p.m. they were outside the nearby Center Street police station, Ordaz naked and carrying his little girl, yelling “help” and “police” in Spanish.

Ordaz has been in custody — jail or a mental health facility — since his arrest the night of the killing, after he carried Maria, shoeless and soaking wet, from the church to the nearby police department.

The girl could not be revived after lengthy resuscitation efforts by police, paramedics and hospital personnel. Ordaz was accompanied by his son, then 9, who was wearing only shorts. The boy was not physically injured.

Prosecutors charged Ordaz with murder, which would require jurors to find that he intended to kill and that he acted with deliberate planning and malice.

But his attorney said Ordaz only intended to heal his daughter in the baptismal pool.

“Experts we consulted confirmed that Gerardo’s religious beliefs, cultural background and lack of any formal education informed his faith in the healing power of holy water,” she said.

Shortly after Ordaz was arrested, his attorney raised questions about his mental competency and two psychologists who examined him agreed Ordaz 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.

Unlike two prior court hearings at which Ordaz became emotional and yelled “Why did I do it?” he has been quiet and engaged in hearings during the past month. He dressed in a dark suit as jury selection began two weeks ago and stood when prospective jurors entered the courtroom.

In court Sept. 9, as jury selection was set to begin, he confirmed to the judge that he was rejecting a 15-years-to-life deal to second-degree murder charges.

Since then, as a jury was close to being seated, negotiations continued. Ordaz entered his pleas Wednesday morning.

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 Maria Guadalupe Chavarria, who was pregnant at the time, also have two older children in addition to the boy and little Maria.

Though Ordaz has a criminal record dating to 1998 that includes felony burglary and misdemeanor theft and drunken driving convictions, those priors will not be considered during his sentencing because the 11 years was a negotiated agreement.

Grenfell said those crimes were mostly poverty-related and have no bearing on this case.

The 2016 killing was the first homicide in Healdsburg since 2008.

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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