From the back of the courtroom, Dario Ortiz watched Wilfredo Ortega say “guilty” four times. He watched a judge tell Ortega he’s headed to jail. That didn’t make him feel any safer.
In fact, Ortiz and his wife Mercedes Benitez left court talking about moving out of Fair Haven. They’re afraid for their safety while Ortega, the man who attacked Ortiz and broke his nose, awaits sentencing for that crime.
The scene took place Thursday afternoon inside the state courthouse on Elm Street. It was the latest chapter in a saga that began on Shelter Street on Sept. 1. Ortiz, a 50-year-old Ecuadorean immigrant, noticed Ortega and another man hanging suspiciously near his home that evening. Immigrants in Fair Haven have identified Ortega as someone who’s been beating them up and robbing them. Ortega indeed attacked Ortiz and several of his family members that night. He broke Ortiz’s nose. But he and his family held Ortega long enough for police to arrest him.
The incident sent shivers through the congregation of St. Rose of Lima, which includes hundreds of immigrants. Some 250 parishioners brought the police chief to their church on a Sunday morning to demand better protection from muggers preying on immigrants; Ortiz’s case was Exhibit A. Click here to read about that and listen to the 911 call in the case. (Click here for a story about a separate arrest of a man allegedly preying on immigrants; a judge Thursday continued his case until next month and kept him imprisoned on $50,000 bond.)
It turned out that Wilfredo Ortega had been in violation of probation when he attacked Dario Ortiz. It turned out he was also facing charges for robbing and beating up another Latino man.
He appeared before Judge Maureen Keegan Thursday afternoon to answer all the charges, which included felony larceny and robbery and misdemeanor assault, breach of peace, reckless endangerment, criminal trespass, and failure to appear in court.
Two church leaders accompanied Ortiz and Benitez to court to watch the proceedings. Beforehand, the prosecutor, Assistant State’s Attorney Marc Ramia, brought the group to his office to answer their questions and offer reassurance.
They needed it.
Despite all his charges and all his history, Ortega was released on a promise to appear in court after being arrested for attacking Ortiz. He’s been out on the street. Ortiz’s family, traumatized by the attack, feels newly frightened about a retaliation repeat.
Ramia explained that he and Ortega’s attorney, Howard Gemeiner, had worked out a deal. Ortega would plead guilty to all the outstanding charges against him, including from the two attacks and violating probation. The state would recommend a 10-year sentence suspended after five years. Prosecutor Ramia also insisted on a “floor” in the deal: Gemeiner would not seek to convince a judge at sentencing to mete out less than a two-year sentence. That means Ortega would spend some time behind bars.
Ramia brought a Spanish language interpreter into his office to translate for Ortiz and Benitez. They said they were pleased that Ortega will go to jail. Will he go right to jail? they asked.
The answer was no. On Thursday Ortega would plead guilty. Then the state’s adult probation department would conduct a pre-sentencing investigation into Ortega. The sentencing wouldn’t take place for eight to 12 weeks. Yes, he’d be out during that time.
“Once he pleads guilty [today], what happens to us? We are left as the victims,” Ortiz said.
“As long as he’s loose, as long as he’s on the street, as long as he’s out,” said Benitez, “I am very afraid.”
A discussion about Connecticut’s criminal justice system ensued. The judge sets bail (he had made bail on previous charges). Ortega is already out; it was unlikely he’d be locked up again, or that his his bond would be suddenly raised, pending sentencing.
However, the court did set an order barring Ortega from having any contact with Ortiz. Ramia gave the family his direct number. If he gets near you, he said, call me.
Fair Haven’s top cop, Sgt. Anthony Zona, was in the room, too. He has stayed in close contact with the folks at St. Rose. He too promised to respond if he hears of Ortega approaching the family.
Zona accompanied the group into court around 2:30 p.m. They remained near the door as Ortega, Gemeiner and prosecutor Ramia (at right in photo) presented the deal to Judge Keegan. Ortega entered his plea under the Alford Doctrine, under which a defendant acknowledges that the state has a preponderance of evidence to convict him at trial, even if he doesn’t agree with all the factual allegations.
Keegan made sure Ortega understood that he would receive a minimum of two years behind bars when she sentences him on Feb. 13, and that he could receive five. “That’s going to be my decision. There are no promises as to what that number will be,” she said.
Then she added: If Ortega gets arrested again before Feb. 13, he faces up to 17 years in jail. He said he understood that, too.
That message was understood by Ortiz and Benitez as well.
So was the message conveyed by prosecutor Ramia. So was the message conveyed by Sgt. Zona’s presence in court.
But when it was all over, and Ortega left the courtroom, the couple still felt like victims. (Ortega and attorney Gemeiner declined comment for this story.)
Ortiz called Ramia and Zona “great guys.” He said he appreciated their help, their availability to react if Ortega confronts the family again.
But the fact remained that Ortega will be free for two months. And that scares them.
I’ve seen Ortega near my kids’ school, Benitez said. Others have seen him in the neighborhood.
“You call the police. And you call me” if that happens, Ramia reassured the family in the hallway after the court proceeding.
Ortiz and Benitez said they are seriously considering moving out of their home while Ortega remains at large.
“Why should this family be victimized again” their priest from St. Rose, Father James Manship, said as he accompanied them out of the courthouse, “feeling they may have to move out of the neighborhood?”