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Last victim in Texas murder spree was 21st trans person killed in 2018, advocates say

Janelle Ortiz was the fourth victim of this month’s killing spree in Laredo, Texas, allegedly by a Border Patrol agent who has been described as a serial killer.
Image: Law enforcement officers gather near the scene where the body of a woman was found near Interstate 35 north of Laredo, Texas on Sept. 15, 2018.
Law enforcement officers gather near the scene where the body of a woman was found near Interstate 35 north of Laredo, Texas on Sept. 15, 2018. Danny Zaragoza / The Laredo Morning Times via AP

The fourth and final victim in this month’s killing spree in southern Texas — allegedly by a Border Patrol agent who has been described as a serial killer — is also the 21st known transgender person to die by violence this year, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ advocacy group that has been tracking such data since 2013.

Janelle Ortiz, also known as Nikki Enriquez, was a 28-year-old trans woman who lived in Laredo, a Texas city on the Mexico border. Like the three victims before her — Melissa Ramirez, Claudine Luera and Guiselda Alicia Cantu — Ortiz was a sex worker who frequented a notorious strip of Laredo’s San Bernardo Avenue.

All four women, according to police reports, were shot in the head and left for dead on rural Texas roadsides. A fifth victim, Erika Pena, managed to escape and led authorities to the suspect, Juan David Ortiz (no relation to Janelle Ortiz), on Sept. 15.

"The targeted murder of four women, and the kidnapping of a fifth woman, is horrific and alarming,” Sarah McBride, a transgender advocate and HRC spokesperson, told NBC News. “Nikki's death appears to be the direct result of the toxic combination of misogyny, racism, xenophobia and transphobia.”

Of the 21 known transgender people killed so far this year, at least 17, including Janelle Ortiz, were trans women of color, according to HRC's research.

McBride also addressed the misgendering of Ortiz, who was initially referred to as an “unknown male” and “John Doe” in police reports and news coverage.

“The misgendering of transgender victims of fatal violence is one more indignity on top of the ultimate act of injustice,” McBride said. “Whether done intentionally or unintentionally, [it] can reinforce the very prejudice at the heart of this violence.”

Members of the victims’ families and McBride stressed the importance of acknowledging that these women were more than just sex workers and crime victims.

“Behind these crimes are people with hopes and dreams whose lives were cut tragically short,” McBride said. “Our hearts go out to all those mourning these tragic killings."

In interviews with The Associated Press, grieving relatives of the victims, stressed that their loved ones were more than the troubles they endured.

"They had families. They were loved. They were someone. They were human," said Colette Mireles, a sister of Claudine Luera.

Rosenda Ortiz, Janelle’s younger sister, said her sibling dreamed of being famous. Despite a difficult childhood, which included constantly being thrust into new homes, Rosenda Ortiz said her sister was strong and had a big heart, always asking what others needed.

Rosenda Ortiz said Janelle was “not known as a prostitute or a sex worker.” She said she was “just a human being like the other victims.”

In an emotional interview with NBC’s Houston affiliate, Janelle Ortiz’s mother, Elva, said she has only one desire after her daughter’s death.

“I want justice done,” she said. “That is what I want.”

Laredo City Councilwoman Nelly Vielma, the only woman on the governing panel, called the four deaths a case of "femicide" and said the brutal killings should be considered a hate crime. She also called the case a violation of the public's trust and said it should be a call to action for the community.

Juan David Ortiz, 35, faces four counts of murder. He also has been charged with the aggravated assault and unlawful restraint of Erika Pena, who escaped and alerted authorities. Vielma called Pena a hero.

Joey Tellez, the suspect's attorney, released a statement saying he would not be commenting on the case. The suspect is a Navy veteran who had been in the Border Patrol about 10 years.