It was like any other day, like any other argument between him and his longtime girlfriend and mother of his son. They were having a disagreement about whether or not the woman’s 12-year-old daughter, whom he was like a father to, was allowed to go out that night, his lawyers said.
The next thing he knew, 27-year-old Alfredo Emmanuel Ortiz Montano received a call from the police station and was being accused of touching the girl sexually since she was as young as 6 years old.
The girl and her mother had reported the alleged molestation to police. When accused over the phone, his reply was translated incorrectly and initially taken as a confession.
It wasn’t a confession, but Ortiz was arrested for the alleged sexual abuse on Oct. 2, 2013.
His arrest was the beginning of an ordeal that wouldn’t end for another two years.
“It was an experience that I don’t wish on anyone,” Ortiz said through a translator during an interview last week.
Bail was set at $250,000, he said, but as more charges were filed against him, it increased to $500,000, then to $2 million. In addition to that, Ortiz thought he was on an immigration hold at the Napa County jail – something that would prevent him from being released, even if he had the money to pay bail, he feared.
Ortiz was eventually transferred to Solano County, where he bunked with two other men – one had murdered three people, the other had killed his own daughter, Ortiz said.
“It was very difficult,” he said. “I met good people and I met bad people.”
He evaded questions from the other inmates, he said. He couldn’t tell anyone why he was in jail – it was too dangerous – so he would tell them he was there for something he made-up, like domestic violence.
Amid everything, Ortiz said that he still worried about his family and whether or not they were able to pay bills and the rent. He had been working as a forklift driver and was the family’s main provider, he said.
Not long after being arrested, Ortiz was surprised to find out that a second victim had come forward.
“I didn’t even know who (it could be),” he said. Then his lawyer informed him that it was one of his relatives. The girl was the same age as his girlfriend’s daughter – the two of them were like best friends, Ortiz said.
He was eventually charged with 14 counts of child sexual abuse, including sexual intercourse with a child 10 or under and sodomy with a child 10 or under.
“I just felt really empty,” Ortiz said, recounting the memory.
With a supposed confession and testimonies of two alleged victims, Ortiz’s privately retained attorney advised him to plead guilty, he said. Later, when he was assigned a public defender, that lawyer didn’t listen to his protestations of innocence either.
“They would tell me if you go to trial, you’re going to lose for sure,” he said. “My word had no value to them.”
Neither attorney asked him any questions nor did any investigating, Ortiz said. “They didn’t know anything about my life.”
Finally, the case was assigned to Cate Beekman, who was a practicing public defender at the time.
“She told me, ‘Don’t worry about it – I can’t promise you that I’m going to get you out, but what I do promise is that I’m going to do the best job possible,’” Ortiz said.
It was like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders – someone was going to listen to him, to fight for him.
In February, Beekman left the public defender’s office to start a practice with her husband, Francisco Cortés. She brought the Ortiz case with her. It was all they focused on the first few months of opening up, she said. “I was so scared,” she said. “He was facing life in prison.”
“Their work was very different,” Ortiz said of his newest lawyers. They would see him two or three times a week, he said – way more than he met with his previous lawyers.
When they went to trial in August, Deputy District Attorney Lance Hafenstein presented the testimony of the two girls and each of their mothers, one of the girl’s fathers, police officers, an expert witness and Ortiz’s now 9-year-old son.
“When he saw me he started crying,” Ortiz said, “and I also started crying.”
It was the first time they had seen one another in almost two years.
“He used to be my dad,” the boy told the court when asked to identify Ortiz.
Although Ortiz maintained his innocence, Hafenstein thought the evidence pointed to his guilt.
“I don’t take a case to trial … unless I think that the defendant’s guilty and I can prove him or her guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” Hafenstein said on Wednesday.
Hafenstein called an expert witness to explain child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome to jurors. The syndrome attempts to explain why a victim of sexual abuse might not scream or fight back and why they may sometimes wait years to report anything, Hafenstein said.
The defense also called an expert witness who testified that children can be easily influenced by the adults around them, Beekman said, which explained how the children could be used to advance a false accusation against Ortiz.
Beekman said that interviews with the two alleged victims were inconsistent, that their stories were always changing. Ortiz’s former girlfriend put her daughter up to it, she said.
Beekman argued that the girl’s mother was trying to resolve her immigration status. She was going to use the accusation against Ortiz in order to get a “U visa,” a non-immigrant visa set aside for victims of crimes and their immediate family members, Beekman said.
“She was preoccupied with obtaining her ‘papers’ and she knew through this criminal case against Ortiz, she could obtain visas for both herself and her daughter,” Beekman said. “On the stand, she denied having any concern with her immigration status, although several witnesses testified having heard her talk repeatedly over the years about her need to find a way to fix her papers.”
The defense also presented testimony of 12 people who were close with the family during the years of the alleged abuse, including friends, family members and roommates, Beekman said. Even Ortiz himself took the stand.
“I just listened to his testimony – I didn’t have a lot of emotion about it,” Larry Dooley, one of the jurors, said last week during a phone interview.
The trial, which was his first as a juror, was difficult, Dooley said. Although he thought Ortiz may have touched the girls, he didn’t think the prosecution was doing a good job of proving it.
“I would’ve loved to ask some questions to clarify things that were never clarified,” he said, but the prosecution wasn’t asking those things.
“I don’t think anybody was happy with the whole situation,” he said. “Was it manufactured? Was it truthful? We didn’t have that level of information.”
“There was still a question,” Dooley said.
“Reasonable doubt is a pretty high burden – no matter how heinous the charges are,” said another juror, Cornel J. Baila.
After a 2 ½-week jury trial, deliberation lasted only a few hours before jurors found Ortiz not guilty on 14 counts of child sexual abuse.
“There’s two ways to look at it,” Baila said. “Something may have happened but you can’t prove it, or nothing happened at all.”
He said that some jurors thought Ortiz did it, others thought he didn’t, but they all agreed on the verdict. The case was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, he said.
“It was brutal,” Baila said of the charges, “but the alternative – putting an innocent man away, I think, is also equally horrific.”
Hafenstein said that the District Attorney’s Office was “very disappointed” with the verdict.
Ortiz, on the other hand, is grateful to be out of jail and done with the case. He says he’s trying to rebuild his life.
“It’s like I’m born again,” he said. “Awake from that nightmare.”
He’s moved in with family members and returned to work, but his main goal is having a relationship with his son. “I want to recover that time that I lost with my son so that he knows I’m not a bad person,” Ortiz said.
Before all this, their relationship was so good, he said. “We used to play, go out together, do manual things,” like play with Play-Doh and build things out of Lego’s.
Ortiz has not seen his son since being released from jail. “I only have a picture of him,” he said.
He and his ex-girlfriend, who has custody of his their son, completed mediation without any progress, Beekman said on Friday. Ortiz is still in the process of seeking some form of custody as well as visitation rights, she said.
Ortiz isn’t afraid to talk about his experience – he said he hopes that his story will be able to teach people that “even when things look really bad, that there’s always hope.”