The Blink of an Eye
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.
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."
At first, the crimes committed that day seemed uncomplicated. Sonia Ortiz drove without a license and caused the death of a man who had spent 12 years on the force. She killed a cop with a daughter at home. Her husband's Honda wasn't registered, and she didn't have insurance. Police placed Ortiz in the county lockup under a charge called "driving without a drivers license causing a death."
In the blink of an eye, Ortiz had gone from homemaker, mother of three with a fourth on the way, her children's half-prepared lunch still warming on the stove, to "cop killer." The public defender assigned to her case couldn't manage to get bail for her, and Ortiz, whose primary concern up to that point had been feeding her children three times a day, was suddenly facing a year or more in jail before her trial even began. After that, the prospect was -- and is -- even more hopeless. Her crimes could land her in prison until her unborn child is in school.
But the law isn't always as simple as guilt or innocence, and people who had heard about the tragic accident saw things differently from the black and white of state statutes. The antiques dealers who had lobbied for a traffic light banded to support her. People gave diapers for her kids and food for her family and offered hundreds of dollars to get her out of jail. Most of them said that they didn't think she should face prison for an honest mistake and that the courts ought to consider her three kids at home and another on the way.
Still, few people seem to have a simple answer for what should happen to Ortiz. Many of those who were close to Officer Morash say bluntly that Sonia Ortiz should learn what it's like raising your kids from a prison cell. Even the sympathetic antiques dealers and pedestrians and other drivers who saw it all that day -- every one of them -- seem dumbfounded when asked what should happen to her. "Putting her in jail seems harsh," Earnhart said recently, sitting in the Victorian chair in front of his shop where he saw it all that afternoon. "But just letting her go, that can't happen either. It would be like his death meant nothing."
Morash's family, not surprisingly, wants her behind bars. She killed a cop, a husband, a father; and for some, it's that simple. "What happens to her?" his brother, Mike Morash, asked rhetorically. "Who the hell cares?"
Truth is, many people seem to care what happens to Ortiz. But so far, no one has a plan for the punishment of a pregnant cop-killing mother of three who made an honest mistake one day.
There are still plastic Halloween ghosts hanging in the scraggly hibiscus tree above her as Maritza Figueroa plops down in a plastic lawn chair in front of the rundown cottage on Morton Avenue. A lot of household tasks got neglected back at the end of October. Her sister, Ortiz, was in jail, and it was her job to care for the six kids. From inside the open windows, what seems like a horde of them talks in a mix of Spanish and English over Maury Povich blaring from the TV. "My sister," Maritza begins, "is so sorry for what happened. I can't tell you how much."
She casually pops some Skittles into her mouth. "She's a good girl and a good mother," she continues. "All she cares about is being a mom to her kids." After all, it's what she learned from her own mom, who left a good life in Guayama, Puerto Rico, two decades ago for her children. Back then, they lived in the sprawling house of Ortiz's grandparents. But her mother wanted the children to be raised in the States, so she left her husband and moved the family to Florida. Here, they lived in poverty.
Ortiz was always the pretty one, with her thin cheek line and round eyes a shade lighter than her chestnut skin, Maritza says. She was one they say had that motherly instinct early on. She tried to adopt a stray when she was 14 years old, and the alley cat clawed her face, leaving a jagged scar that stretches from her left eye to her lips.
Ortiz became a mother early on. She was 16, and her first boyfriend, Geamny, promised to stay with her forever. She quit school, and last year they had their third child. The kids share a room with Maritza and her three children. Ortiz's mother and the man she married a few years ago get the other bedroom, and Ortiz and Geamny sleep on the rickety pull-out couch with its cushions that seem to lack any padding at all. "My sister never drove," Maritza says. "In Spanish culture, when the wife is pregnant, she stays home, and the husband takes care of her. She don't go to work or need to drive to the store." Maritza doesn't know why Ortiz took the car the day of the accident. When they talked at the jail, Ortiz couldn't explain it either.
Maritza talks about the accident like some destined encounter that ought to have some good come of it some day, as if there's a colored candle to light on the mantle to make sense of it all. "I don't know why. I don't know why it happened," Maritza says. "I'll tell you that I guess it was meant to be."
That morning, not long after Maritza's morning break under the shade of the hibiscus, a thousand cops filed into the stadium where the Florida Marlins play spring training games in Jupiter. They came from across the state, many of them in the shiny, knee-length boots and round helmets of motorcycle cops. Morash's family sat on folding chairs behind home plate as his flag-draped coffin was rolled into the stadium on a gurney. His daughter, Tatyana, sat on the end, a couple of her girlfriends crowding around her. Coworkers and family told the gathering about a cop who was the second-youngest of seven kids. He was into motorcycles from the moment he got his Green Machine Big Wheel as a boy on Long Island. He spent a couple of years as an electrician before becoming a cop. Nobody talked about what should happen to the woman who killed him, whether she should go to jail. Nobody talked about whether that intersection should finally get a traffic light. Only Mayor Lois Frankel alluded to what's next. "Our commitment to you," she said toward the coffin, "is that our city will do right by you."
As tragically unforeseen as Morash's death was, the way he died has become all too common. In fact, motorcycle accidents are the third most-frequent way cops die, after shootings and car crashes, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. Motorcycle accidents have accounted for more than 1,100 dead officers in the United States. Seven motorcycle cops have died this year alone, and all but one lost their lives in routine collisions. Like Morash, they were all wearing helmets. And while many of those officers might have lived if riding in cars, police officials swear by motorcycles and their ability to weave through traffic.
It's not the motorcycle that Mike Morash blames for his brother's death. Shortly after the funeral, Mike stood in his orderly garage at his Port St. Lucie home and talked about the woman he wants to see behind bars. Ortiz shouldn't have been driving that day, he explained, and if she weren't, his brother would be alive. Ortiz made his sister-in-law a widow, his niece became fatherless, and Mike's own children lost a man they called a role model. Mike's son Billy even went with Morash last year on a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in New York. "He was a special man, he really was," Mike said, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his jeans shorts. Mike, a firefighter, even looks a lot like his brother. They were both wide-shouldered and constantly tanned. They wore the same bushy mustaches and crew cuts and spoke in the abrupt New York way. "He was a guy who would do anything for anybody, and that's what made him a good cop."
So what should happen to the woman who killed him, accident or not? "Are you kidding?" Mike barked, his bushy eyebrows pushing together. "I could frankly care less."
Every Tuesday afternoon for about three years, Officer Thomas Morash had a date with a bunch of retirees. He'd swing by at about 3:30 and block traffic on Spencer Drive, in front of the Darcy Hall retirement home. Then, a group of 20 or so of the home's residents would make their way across five lanes of traffic in wheelchairs and walkers to the Walgreens across the street. He'd wait with them as they got prescriptions filled and perused the aisles on their weekly outing, then blocked traffic again to help them back across. So it's not a surprise that Darcy Hall is home to some of Morash's biggest fans. "He was our cop," says Mamie Cross, an 85-year-old resident from Indianapolis with bushy gray hair and bundled in a grandmotherly knit sweater. "T.J., we called him. He'd come by every week, and we loved him for it."
Not long after Morash's death, Cross sat in a wheelchair in the home's lobby at the request of activities director June Allfrey. She had assembled a few of the people who knew Morash. A couple of them made it out to the wallpapered lobby on walkers, and the home's activity assistant, Winnie Lamont, came out too to talk about Morash. Lamont would join the pharmacy field trip and chat with Morash as they waited for the prescriptions. "He would talk about his daughter and his wife all the time and retiring to Colorado," Lamont recalled, teary-eyed. "We even got his daughter a present at Christmas."
The home's residents heard about his death on the TV news the night it happened. Most of them have televisions in their rooms, and Allfrey assembled a bunch of them not long afterward to talk it through. Many of the residents and employees are still bitter about what happened. Some of them talk about how that woman who caused it needs to pay. "She was old enough to know better than to get behind the wheel," Lamont said. "What should happen to her? You don't want that in print."
"They're trying to make people feel bad for her," Cross said, her cheery Midwest demeanor turning into a scowl. "I don't feel bad for her."
Allfrey, the activities director, tried to turn things positive. "Now, we don't know all the details. Perhaps she had her reasons."
"She wasn't a teenager who didn't know better," replied Lamont.
"Nobody can take the place of T.J.," Cross said, wringing her hands in her lap.
But should Ortiz end up in jail, behind bars? "She has three children, I've heard," Allfrey said, "and she's pregnant."
Lamont, whose son is a deputy sheriff, was adamant. "She needs to pay," she said. "She killed a cop, and she needs to pay."
Ortiz looks the worse for wear for her first big day in court. They don't allow hair products at the jail, so after 17 days behind bars, her normally neat, pulled-back bun is fuzzy, and hair seems to stick out everywhere. Waiting for the hearing to begin, she sits crying in the courtroom's jury box, her face red and worn. Her baggy blue jail jumpsuit doesn't show the bulge in her belly. When she finally stands up in front of the podium in the center of the courtroom, she looks tiny and frail.
"Have you ever had a driver's license?" asks Circuit Judge Kenneth Stern.
"Me?" Ortiz replies sheepishly.
"No, never had."
"Do you have any idea how long you might go to prison?"
"No," Ortiz says, and she begins to weep into a rough-looking paper towel. "No."
But two weeks after the accident, Ortiz's bleak jail-bound future becomes a bit less gloomy. No longer is she represented by the public defender who was unable to convince a judge to let her out on bond. Instead, the Antique Row Association, the shop owners who had for so long lobbied for a light at the intersection of Roseland and Dixie, have paid for a private attorney to represent her. A couple of the antiques dealers, middle-aged women who shy away from the television cameras, sit in the second row. Standing beside Ortiz is Kristine Rosendahl, a fiery veteran attorney who doubles as an NFL agent. She looks the part of a tough lawyer, with her beige pant suit and matching Gucci accessories. Rosendahl quickly turns the routine hearing into a three-hour inquiry into the state's "witch hunt."
For the first time, the two groups that have been punished the most from that accident are just feet apart. In the courtroom's front row sit a half-dozen West Palm motorcycle cops, in their knee-length boots and clutching circular helmets; next to them is the dead cop's brother, Mike Morash, and his wife, Theresa. Behind the Morashes and the motorcycle cops, in the second row of the courtroom, is the Ortiz family. All 11 of the people who live in the little cottage are there, and so are a couple of cousins and Ortiz's brother Carlos. Ortiz and Geamny Perez have made up now. He moved back into the cottage, and they agreed to forget their spat. He's wearing a trucking company work shirt with an American flag on the sleeve. The two groups -- they could have touched each other without stretching too far -- do not talk or even look at each other.
Ortiz's attorney does most of the speaking.
"We are not asking for just a high bond," Rosendahl tells the judge, "because a high bond is tantamount to no bond at all." She says the Ortiz family doesn't have much. "We are not all born rich, judge. We don't all have stellar educations..." She asks for a bond near $2,500, and the Morashes, in the front row, shake their heads in disapproval. "There are no winners on that day [of the accident], your honor," Rosendahl says. "Everybody's a loser."
The prosecutor, Assistant State Attorney Todd Weicholz, admits he can't ask for a high bond considering that the charges Ortiz faces aren't all that severe. They compare in severity to driving without a license twice. But Weicholz makes sure to emphasize that Ortiz isn't the victim. "Mrs. Rosendahl made a reference to quality of living," the prosecutor says, "but Mrs. Ortiz is living."
When it's Judge Stern's turn, he sounds like he might live up to his name. "I certainly have tremendous sympathy for the victims in this case," he says. The charge may be just a third-degree felony, the judge continues, but the loss is great, and the community is without an exemplary officer.
But then the judge seems to bend. Ortiz has deep ties to the community, and she seems not to be a flight risk. The justice system guarantees the chance for the accused to get out of jail, he says. Stern agrees to the $2,500 bail as long as Ortiz stays in her home at all times until the trial. She could go out only for the unavoidable, like prenatal doctors' appointments. But before dismissing Ortiz, he addresses the Morash family, speaking of the fallen officer: "He suffered in a way nobody should ever have to suffer. This is a tragedy to all of us."
Mike Morash doesn't make eye contact with the judge. He whispers to a couple of the motorcycle cops and then quickly ducks out of the courtroom.
Later, in an interview, Rosendahl insists the law is on Ortiz's side. The charge of causing a death while driving without a license requires the state to prove that Ortiz was driving negligently, which means the state would have to prove she was at fault. No one's accused Ortiz of actually doing anything wrong aside from her failure to get a driver's license. In addition, the Department of Motor Vehicles has bolstered Ortiz's case, Rosendahl insists, by concluding that the intersection is dangerous. Since the accident, DOT officials told her they agreed to trim the trees, get rid of a few parallel parking spots, and make it a right-turn-only intersection. And finally, the attorney promises to hire a specialist who will reconstruct the crash to show it wasn't Ortiz's fault. At some point, Ortiz will plead guilty to driving without insurance or registration, both misdemeanors. The trial, which could begin as early as January, will prove Ortiz's innocence on the charge that she caused Morash's death, Rosendahl concludes. "I think people need to look to their hearts," she says, "and determine what's reasonable."
After the hearing and coverage of the case by local newspapers, Rosendahl says, her office was flooded with calls offering money for Ortiz's bail. But Ortiz still needed another $170 to pay for a bracelet she would have to wear while she was out, to make sure she stayed at home. Three days after the hearing, Geamny is trying to figure out how to pay for it. He has only $8. "I haven't got it," Geamny says by cell phone from his tow truck. "We have the money for bail but not more. I had to pay the rent. We don't have any more money." Finally, Rosendahl says the prosecutors agreed to waive the court fees for the monitoring equipment. The attorney took it as a sign that the state acknowledges the public's outcry over the prosecution.
Either way, Ortiz gets out of jail a day before the first birthday of her youngest daughter, Victoria. The family makes hot dogs and hamburgers and cake for the neighborhood kids. Ortiz gives her daughter hand-drawn cards she made in her cell, ones she thought she would have to send from jail.
Two days later, Rosendahl arranges for the public to meet her client by way of a television news crew from West Palm's Channel 25. The attorney forbids Ortiz from speaking of the accident or whether she's sorry about what happened. Reporter Angela Rozier sits Ortiz in a kitchen chair with Victoria on her lap. Ortiz says the accident has changed her, made her fearful of many things. "I'm scared of nighttime," she says through constant tears; they run down the channel of the scar below her eye. "If I fall asleep, I dream. I have nightmares," she says. "And every time I hear a police car siren or ambulance, I think it's for me, and I'm so scared and terrified."
The reporter asks about all the people donating food and money and diapers. "I thank my angels from heaven," Ortiz says, Victoria squirming on her lap. "They donate food for my kids when I'm in there. And money. Every time I pray, I tell the Lord to bless them."
Ortiz's kitchen chair is under the archway that separates the tiny foyer of the cottage from the even smaller living room. Through a side door is the kids' mattress-covered bedroom. As the interview winds down, the wrestling match on the mattresses gets louder, and Ortiz ducks away to silence them. Rosendahl, in a red skirt suit with matching Chanel accessories, also tries a few times to quiet the horde. After the television reporter wraps up the interview, Ortiz opens the bedroom door and the kids spill out into the living room to catch SpongeBob SquarePants on the old RCA. With the kids distracted, Ortiz admits she told the kids she had been in the hospital for those couple of weeks. They ask her about the ankle bracelet she's required to wear. "I tell them it's for the baby," she says, a hand on the bulge above her jeans. "I tell them it monitors the heartbeat. I don't want them to know what's going on. They don't need to know this about their mom."
Some day soon, she might have to tell the kids what's going on. If she goes to prison, they'll probably come visit her, and they'll know she's not at the hospital. Her oldest, 5-year-old Geamny Jr., is in first grade now and is likely to figure it out. Someday, she might have to tell them that a car she was driving killed a respected police officer and that she's going to jail for a while because of it. They'll have to help raise the baby while she's there. It's due in April.
Get the Things to Do Newsletter
Find out about upcoming events and special offers happening in South Florida.