By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN and MATT SEDENSKY
LAREDO, Texas (AP) — Janelle Ortiz dreamed of becoming famous. Melissa Ramirez imagined a day when the street wasn’t home and drugs not her preoccupation. Claudine Luera just ached to see her children do better than she had.
All of these women, bound by difficulties in life, met an eerily similar death: They were shot in the head and left on rural Texas roadsides, allegedly by a Border Patrol agent who has been described as a serial killer. Relatives of the dead are now grieving for loved ones who, they say, were more than the troubles they endured.
The suspect’s motive remains unknown. Authorities said the three women and a fourth woman, Guiselda Alicia Cantu, whose name was released Wednesday, were sex workers, and that Border Patrol supervisor Juan David Ortiz knew some of them.
Each lived a life littered with hardship. Gracie Perez remembered her sister-in-law, 29-year-old Ramirez, telling her she was raped when she was 13. She dropped out of high school, experienced depression and eventually began living on the streets. Her five children were left in the care of others. She struggled with a drug habit.
Despite all of that, her relatives remembered someone always trying to make others laugh. Ramirez liked pulling up funny videos on YouTube, devouring whatever food was before her and enjoying TV at full blast as she fell asleep on the couch.
Perez said her sister-in-law frequently returned home to her mother’s house, where two of her children live, typically staying a few days, vowing to get off drugs and improve her life before returning to the streets.
“She wanted to be a better mom, a better person,” Perez said. “She didn’t want to be running the streets anymore.”
Janelle Ortiz, 28, envisioned a future where her personality and gift for talking with nearly anyone transformed her into someone famous. Rosenda Ortiz, her younger sister, remembered the difficult childhood they shared, with them constantly being thrust into new homes. She said her sister was strong and had a big heart, always asking what others needed.
Rosenda Ortiz hoped that one day she’d be able to get a home of her own and invite her sister to come live with her.
“He was not known as a prostitute or a sex worker,” she said, using pronouns she knows her transgender sister would have chided her for. “He was just a human being like the other victims. He was just living his life.”
As children, the sisters were at each other’s throats. But Mireles marveled at her sister’s ability to smile through her pain, even as her life spiraled downward the past few years. She always knew she might get a call with news of Luera’s death, but she figured it would be an overdose. To hear she was found shot, clinging to life on the side of the road, was harrowing.
The suspect told police that Luera questioned him about being the last person to have seen Ramirez before her death, authorities said. Mireles takes some comfort thinking of her sister’s bravery in confronting him.
“My sister was feisty, so I’m sure she put up a hell of a fight,” she said.
Joey Tellez, the attorney for the 35-year-old suspect, released a statement saying he would not be commenting on the case. Ortiz is a Navy veteran who had been in the Border Patrol about 10 years.
Back at the modest home Ramirez frequented, an American flag is tied to a front window of a faded green trailer, and toys are strewn across the yard. Her mother, Maria Cristina Benevidez, steps haltingly as she places a photo of her daughter beside the wooden box that holds her ashes, hanging rosary beads and a gold cross necklace from the frame.
Roosters are crowing, a Chihuahua named Mia is barking and Benevidez stands solemnly, her head bowed. Two weeks before Ramirez was found, she sat at the kitchen table in this home and shared a frightening premonition.
“I’m going to get killed. I’m going to be dead in less than a month,” her brother Cesar Ramirez remembered his sister saying.
“Stop saying nonsense,” he said his mother responded. “Stop saying those stupid things.”
She persisted, insisting she would be shot in the head.
“They’re going to kill me. They’re going to kill me,” she said.
Ramirez was drunk, her sister-in-law said, and she didn’t offer any more details of her vision.
Later, Perez said, her sister-in-law pressed her to join her for a night of partying. Ramirez called her over and over, but she didn’t answer. Now, she thinks she should have done something more, and she’s haunted by Ramirez’s parting words.
“This is the last time you’re going to see me,” she warned.