The Blink of an Eye

Before she could hit the brakes, Sonia Ortiz was transformed from homemaker and pregnant mother of three to "cop killer"

It was lunchtime on a hot Friday in October, and the Ortiz family cottage on Morton Avenue in West Palm Beach seemed to be bursting with restless kids. The house, a cramped, two-bedroom rental unit, maybe two dozen paces from end to end, resounded with the din of five hungry pre-schoolers. Two of them were Sonia Ortiz's children, and three were her sister Maritza's. Ortiz's oldest had just started first grade or he would have been there too, watching videos in the living room with the rest or wrestling in a bedroom covered in mattresses where the kids sleep and play. Ortiz's fourth child was due in seven months. She was making chicken and fries, but there was no soda in the house. She put down her kitchen utensils, rinsed her hands, and headed for La Familia supermarket.

Just outside the house, the family's white '91 Honda Civic was parked at the curb. Usually, Ortiz walked everywhere, leaving the driving to her husband, Geamny Perez. It had been that way since they declared themselves husband and wife, when Ortiz got pregnant for the first time at 16 years old. She was 24 now, and she had driven only a handful of times. She had never gotten her driver's license. But three weeks before that blistering hot morning, Geamny had walked out on his family, leaving the car in front of the house. On a whim, Ortiz grabbed the car keys, fired up the engine, and began the two-block drive.

Why'd she take the car? Spite, maybe. Geamny had always insisted that he do the driving, running household errands himself while his wife stayed home with the kids. Maybe Ortiz took the car just because, with Geamny out of the picture, she could.

Colby Katz
Clockwise from top: Antiques dealers Jerry Earnhart and Doug Spain were among the first to try to comfort Sonia Ortiz after the accident. Sonia and her sister's children play in the mattress-covered room that serves as sleeping quarters and wrestling mat in the family's tiny home. The deadly intersection is now adorned with flowers and flags as a memorial to Officer Morash. Antiques dealers who had lobbied for a stoplight at the intersection hired attorney Kristine Rosenthal.
Colby Katz
Clockwise from top: Antiques dealers Jerry Earnhart and Doug Spain were among the first to try to comfort Sonia Ortiz after the accident. Sonia and her sister's children play in the mattress-covered room that serves as sleeping quarters and wrestling mat in the family's tiny home. The deadly intersection is now adorned with flowers and flags as a memorial to Officer Morash. Antiques dealers who had lobbied for a stoplight at the intersection hired attorney Kristine Rosenthal.

She headed out Morton Avenue, taking a right on Roseland Drive. A block farther, she was at Dixie Highway, leaving behind the old cinderblock apartment buildings with their peeling paint and the pint-size cottages in her Hispanic neighborhood and approaching "Antiques Row," a busy strip of pricey shops on Dixie. The sidewalk is lined with oak trees, and shiny SUVs park on the curbs to pick up newly purchased armoires and dining tables in polished walnut and cherry or maybe a sofa or an armchair upholstered in shiny Victorian fabric.

But the busy shops make this perhaps one of the most dangerous intersections in the city. Ortiz couldn't have seen much of the traffic zooming on West Palm's main drag with those trees and vans in the way. For at least a decade, shop owners along Antique Row have begged the state to install a traffic light at this intersection. Accidents happen there weekly, they say, if not more.

Ortiz hit the gas and angled her car into the intersection.

A minute or so before Ortiz headed into Dixie Highway traffic, 33-year-old Police Officer Thomas Morash had sped along the same road on his police-issued Harley-Davidson. Morash was widely known as one of the good guys of the West Palm Beach Police Department, an officer who regularly took time to escort frail elderly people on shopping missions. The Long Island-born father of an 8-year-old girl was on traffic duty that day, and there was a routine car accident three miles south on Dixie. Someone had run a red light and just about totaled a Toyota SUV. There were no injuries, but Morash needed to file a report. Showing why cops ride motorcycles, Morash weaved effortlessly through noontime traffic. With no blue lights flashing, he came up on Rachele Scholes, a former television news reporter who now owns a public relations firm. She looked down in the way everyone does when a cop comes up behind, and she was glad to see she was going right at the 35 mph speed limit. In the second that Scholes was looking at her speedometer, Morash veered around to the right and then zoomed back into the left lane in front of her. Judging by the ease with which he passed other vehicles, he was doing maybe 50 -- maybe more.

That's when it happened, Scholes recalls. "When I looked up, I saw her," she says. "There was not even a second for him to react. His body took the full impact of the collision."

Morash lay his bike down on its side to prevent becoming a human missile. But his defensive move came too late. He slammed helmet-first into Ortiz's Honda, and his body crumpled from the impact. Across the street, antiques dealer Jerry Earnhart sat outside his shop smoking a cigarette. He watched the bike tumble through the air. It landed as if someone propped it up, he says. Earnhart and perhaps a dozen other people standing outside at the time ran over. Earnhart watched a man try to give Morash CPR. "There was blood running to the curb," Earnhart says.

The cop never moved. Bystanders gave up trying to save Morash and turned to the woman who had just killed him. Ortiz was still in the Honda, her wails bellowing from her open window. Another antiques dealer, Doug Spain, figured somebody ought to comfort her. He talked her out of the car and cradled her petite frame. "I held her, and I could feel her body just trembling and shivering," Spain says. "She was crying out of control."

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