Four women were shot to death, and another kidnapped, by a serial killer in Laredo, Texas, who decided they were not fit to live, authorities said.
They were mothers, sisters, and daughters. Though their lives were hijacked by addiction, they had families in town who hoped their loved ones would somehow, some day, shake the stranglehold of drugs.
These are the women who were allegedly attacked by Juan David Ortiz, a former Border Patrol agent who authorities say hunted them down "execution-style." Ortiz has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him.
Melissa Ramirez, 29
The mother of two was found shot to death along a rural road on Sept. 3, 2018. Friends and family described her as fun-loving and a good person. She struggled with crack cocaine, and two weeks before her death, she sat in her mother's kitchen and said she had a premonition of being murdered. She was drunk, her family told a reporter, and didn't offer any more details.
After her death, her family issued a statement.
"Melissa was well-mannered and very humble. She was a good sister and friend. The times she spent with our family, she was always happy and we could never tell if she was angry or sad. She was a very adorable person, you could never be mad at her. She loved her children, siblings, and her mother very much. Thanks for those great memories you left in our hearts."
Her remains were cremated and her ashes are kept on an altar in her mother's home.
Claudine Luera, 42
A mother of five, Luera was found dead on Sept. 13, on a desolate strip of highway not far from where Ramirez was dumped. She had been shot multiple times and lived for hours, crumpled along the dirt road, before dying, her family said. She was one of four tight-knit sisters who were raised in Laredo. Her relatives said she was happy-go-lucky and though her affair with heroin took over her life, she never gave up hope that one day she would get clean. "She had her flaws, just like anybody else. She had her demons that she was fighting ... but regardless of the situation, she always tried to carry a smile," her sister, Colette Mireles, said at the time.
"They were family, they were loved," she added. Luera was repeatedly shot after the Border Patrol agent she knew as David became angry when she asked after Ramirez, who was a friend, authorities said. "He was upset that she was confronting him about the first victim," Mireles told InsideEdition.com. "I guess he wanted to make sure she shut up."
Erika Pena, 26
She was the lucky one. One day after Luera's body was found, Erika Pena said she was picked up by Ortiz, who had been a former client. He took her to the home he shared with his wife and two children, she told police. Like Luera, Pena asked him about Ramirez, her murdered friend. He became enraged, she said. Pena was so frightened by his reaction, she threw up in his front yard, she told authorities.
As they later drove to a convenience store, she asked again about Ramirez, and if Ortiz had seen her before she was killed, she recounted to investigators. That is when he allegedly pointed his service weapon at her chest, Pena said. She screamed and bolted from his truck, running to a state trooper who was gassing up his cruiser. Ortiz drove away, she said.
Her story broke the case wide open. Pena told authorities where the Border Patrol agent lived. But the experience left her shattered, her aunt told a Texas newspaper after Ortiz's arrest. The young woman is terrified all the time and was unable to even bathe herself. "She doesn't want people to see her as a hero," her aunt, Marcela Rodriguez, told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. "It's sad to see her now, the way she is. She is pretty traumatized." Pena, who has a 5-year-old daughter, needed psychiatric help, her aunt said.
Guiselda Alicia "Shelly" Cantu, 35
Also known as Guiselda Hernandez, Cantu was the mother of four, and was picked up by Ortiz, authorities said, within hours of Pena jumping from his truck. Her body was found about 1 a.m. on Sept. 15, after Ortiz allegedly confessed to killing her and dumping her corpse along Interstate 35. He told authorities where to find her body, investigators said.
She was repeatedly shot in the head, authorities said. Unlike the first three victims, Ortiz did not know Cantu, authorities said.
Janelle Ortiz, aka Nikki Enriquez, 28
Known to her family as "Ricky," Janelle was a transgender woman. Rose Ortiz, the victim's little sister, said her family came to accept that choice. "My dad had a hard time with it, but he got it over it," she told InsideEdition.com. "My mom bought [her] girls' clothes. She was really supportive of [her]."
She added: "I told [her] I'd rather have a sister than a brother."
Janelle dropped out of high school in her sophomore year. She came out as a girl, and had a lot of friends, Rose said. But she fell into drug use, and ultimately into heroin addiction, her sister said. She went back and forth from living with their father, Rose said, to living on the street. Rose had a dream for her family — one day she would save enough money to buy a really big house, where every member of her family, including Janelle.
That was not to be. On Sept. 15 of last year, Rose's grandmother called. She was sobbing. "I hate to tell you this way," the matriarch began. Janelle was dead. "I dropped the phone," Rose said. "I didn't want to talk about it."
Her father went to the morgue and identified his child by the skull tattoo on Janelle's arm.
Her sibling "was going to go to rehab," Rose said. But the family had heard that before. Sometimes Janelle just disappeared into a heroin haze, without a word to anyone. "It was hard to fight it," she said of the hold heroin had on Ortiz. But "I always wanted Ricky to be in the picture."