The first of six defendants in the Richmond High gang rape of 2009 was sentenced in Contra Costa County Superior Court in Martinez today to 32 years in prison.
The sentencing was a formality after Manuel Ortega, 22, plead guilty last month to counts of rape, rape by a foreign object, forced oral copulation resulting in great bodily injury and robbery.
The Contra Costa County District Attorney was about to start jury selection earlier this year when Ortega approached Senior Deputy District Attorney John Cope to request a plea bargain. If Ortega had gone to trial and been convicted, he could have faced a life sentence.
Cope said today that after weighing the need for justice with the victim’s desire to avoid having to testify, they decided to accept the plea bargain.
“We believe this sentence is a balance between punishing the defendant and putting the victim through a trial,” said Cope, as he addressed the court on the victim’s behalf.
The Oct. 24, 2009 gang rape occurred at Richmond High School during a school dance. According to a probation report prepared on Ortega as part of his sentencing, when Richmond police arrived at the scene, they saw a group of men standing around a picnic table. The men scattered immediately.
When police found Ortega, who was 19 at the time, he was violent and screaming obscenities, the probation report stated. Ortega ran from the arresting officer. He punched the officer and tried to kick and bite him. According to the probation report, Ortega told the officer, “Just shoot me in the head. I don’t care … I’ve been alive for 19 years and nobody don’t care about me.”
Richmond police found the victim unresponsive and slumped over a bar underneath a picnic table on school grounds, according to the probation report.
According to the probation report, glitter flecks were found in Ortega’s hair, chest and lower abdomen — similar reddish pink glitter flecks were also found on the ground at the scene of the crime.
“I think you can gather from the charges that he was not just a follower,” Cope said.
Ortega entered the courtroom today in shackles with his head down. His small frame didn’t quite fill out the slightly crumpled khaki slacks and gray suit jacket he wore. As he sat at the defendant’s table, Public Defender Betty Barker called up three witnesses to speak on his behalf: Donald Jefferson, who knew Ortega from his time in the juvenile ward, Cynthia Avalos, a close friend and Maria Ortega, his mother.
“He’s a good person,” said Jefferson as he stood leaning on the podium and addressing Judge Barbara Zuniga, “and I know he has a good heart.” Before sitting back down, an emotional Jefferson told “Manny” that he would be sending him care packages.
Cynthia Avalos spoke next. She described the “Manny” she knows as kind and considerate, someone who was always willing to lend a hand. “If he could go back in time,” said Avalos, “he’d have never done something like this.”
With the help of an interpreter, Maria Ortega also briefly addressed the court. “My family is so sorry about what happened to this young lady,” she said.
“Manny is so sorry about what happened,” she continued, “and he regrets it.”
Ortega sees his mother as much as possible. But he hasn’t spoken to his father in months, according the probation report.
“When speaking about his father, the defendant became emotional and appeared to be fighting back tears,” the probation report states.
Ortega is the oldest of three brothers and one sister, who is five years old. Ortega dropped out of high school when he was 16. He went to the job corps and studied culinary arts, but after two months he was kicked out for setting things on fire, the probation report states.
After the sentencing, Barker told reporters that while there is no excuse for what happened on that night, “underage drinking played a major part in the incident.”
According to the probation report, Ortega took his first sip of alcohol when he was 14. He drank alcohol “almost everyday” and smoked marijuana regularly. He was also addicted to prescription drugs, the report stated.
Before he was arrested for the Richmond gang rape, Ortega was declared a ward of the juvenile court in March 2008 for misdemeanor allegations of tampering with a vehicle. According to the probation report, a psychological assessment was ordered while Ortega was in juvenile hall, after he reportedly attempted suicide.
Dr. John Podboy, a clinical and forensic psychologist who met with Ortega several times, reported that “It is extremely difficult to interact with the defendant. He is consumed by psychotic thoughts about his life and people. He spoke of his desires to end his life when the opportunity presents itself … He does not have the ability to focus for more than a few moments. He insists on discussing conspiratorial topics and his need for drugs.”
Barker, Ortega’s attorney, estimates that Ortega will be in his late 40s or early 50s (the law requires he serve at least 85% of his sentence and he is credited with the time spent in custody so far) when he is released. The court ordered that Ortega become a registered sex offender for the rest of his life. Barker read a statement of apology and acknowledgement from Ortega during the sentencing.
“He wants you to know how sorry he is,” said Barker, “if he could turn the clock back he would. The least he could do is plead guilty and spare the victim anymore pain.”