US Border Patrol agent suspected in killings of four Texas sex workers

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ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — A U.S. Border Patrol agent was arrested in South Texas on Saturday in connection with a calculated killing rampage that left four people dead in recent weeks around the city of Laredo, the authorities said.

Webb County Sheriff Martin Cuellar said police officers arrested the agent, Juan David Ortiz, early Saturday after a woman who claimed she had been abducted by Ortiz escaped half-clothed and sought help at a gas station in Laredo.

“We consider this man to be a serial killer who was preying on one victim after another,” Cuellar said. “Fortunately, he’s now been apprehended.”

The case is the latest in a series of recent gruesome episodes involving Border Patrol agents, and comes at a time when protesters and some Democratic lawmakers are seeking to curb the actions of immigration officials. Some are calling for an end to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which was created in 2003. Customs and Border Protection, another agency in the Department of Homeland Security, has also come under fierce criticism.

Ortiz, 35, was found hiding in a truck in the parking lot of a hotel in Laredo, a city of about 250,000 people on the southwest border with Mexico and about 145 miles from San Antonio. He was arrested on suspicion of evading arrest. District Attorney Isidro Alaniz of Webb County said authorities were prepared to also charge Ortiz with four counts of murder and one count of aggravated kidnapping.

Alaniz said Ortiz is suspected of shooting the four victims, two of whom were identified Saturday as Melissa Ramirez, 29, and Claudine Luera, 42. Luera was found still alive but in critical condition Thursday near a stretch of Texas Highway 255, but she died at a hospital.

Another female victim remained unidentified and was referred to as Jane Doe, Alaniz said. The fourth appeared to be a transgender woman, but authorities referred to her as John Doe. Alaniz said he believed that all the victims worked as prostitutes in the Laredo area.

“At this time we believe the suspect was acting alone,” Alaniz said, describing Ortiz as a supervisory agent who had worked as a Border Patrol agent for a decade.

Alaniz said authorities tracked down Ortiz after a woman, also described as working as a prostitute, escaped after having been abducted. She claimed that the agent, a married father of two young children, had torn off her blouse before she could run away from his vehicle. She ran until she found a police officer at a nearby gas station.

She then described the suspect to the officer and provided details about his vehicle and his home, Alaniz said. He said the woman told authorities that she grew suspicious of the agent after asking him about the spate of killings.

Andrew Meehan, assistant commissioner for public affairs at the Border Patrol, said the agency was fully cooperating with investigators in the case. He said it was the agency’s policy to not comment on details of a current investigation, but added, “criminal action by our employees is not, and will not be tolerated.”

Ortiz’s arrest came on the heels of a case in April in which authorities in Laredo arrested Ronald Anthony Burgos Aviles, also a supervisor for the Border Patrol, and charged him with killing a woman with whom he was romantically involved and her 1-year-old son.

Two years ago, a senior Border Patrol agent stationed farther north up the border in Del Rio, Texas, was taken into custody and charged with distributing child pornography and attempting to entice a minor to engage in sexual activity. Federal prosecutors said the agent, Salvador Contreras, 50, sent child-porn images to an undercover agent whom Contreras believed was the mother of 8-year-old and 14-year-old girls. He had expressed, prosecutors alleged, a desire to engage in sexual conduct with both girls and had made arrangements to do so. Contreras, who was sentenced to serve 11 years in a federal prison, had called himself a sex addict who was just “looking for his next high,” according to prosecutors.

In another case, from 2014, a Border Patrol agent in Texas kidnapped, attacked and sexually assaulted three unauthorized immigrants: a woman and two teenage girls from Honduras. The agent, Esteban Manzanares, killed himself as officers closed in on his South Texas home.

Customs and Border Protection must annually report to Congress all cases of reported sexual abuse by its employees, a requirement prompted by media reports of sexual assault allegations within the agency.

In its most recent report in 2016, the agency showed that from October 2014 to September 2015 there were 52 allegations of sexual abuse and sexual assault by Customs and Border Protection employees, including Border Patrol agents. Many of the allegations stemmed from on-duty cases involving people the employees had apprehended.

The majority of those 52 allegations were found to be either unsubstantiated, not sustained, unfounded or exonerated. But 10 of the 52 allegations were found to have merit and were substantiated or sustained. The report said the employees in the substantiated cases either resigned, had been charged, disciplined or were pending disciplinary action.

State Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, a Democrat who represents Laredo, said Saturday that he knows many Border Patrol agents in the region. He was quick to assert that the allegations against Ortiz were not reflective of the Border Patrol as a whole.

“That could have been a sheriff’s deputy,” Raymond said. “It could have been a P.D. It could have been a state trooper. It wasn’t. It’s a Border Patrol agent, and I don’t think that one thing had anything to do with the other. If this is true, do you really think that there’s something they could have done to have prevented this guy from having the mindset to kill four people? Usually, these guys have some issues that no amount of training would have addressed.”

He added, “Whenever you hear about any law enforcement officer doing something wrong — I don’t care what the agency is — then it’s wrong. But you can’t paint with a broad brush and say, ‘Well, they must all be guys that are willing to go kill four people.’”

The National Border Patrol Council, a union for border patrol agents, did not respond Saturday evening to a request for comment.

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