UPDATED BULLETIN: Lopez-Orozco found guilty of three counts of first-degree murder
Jorge Lopez Orozco was found guilty Thursday of three counts of first-degree murder in the 2002 slaying of Rebecca Ramirez, 29, and her two children, Miguel, 2, and Ricardo, 4, some time between July 30 and Aug. 1 of 2002, whose bodies were found in a burned-out car in southeastern Elmore County.
The case went to the six-man, six-woman jury Wednesday afternoon after the defense did not call any witnesses. The state had concluded its case on Monday and the trial was postponed for election day.
After closing arguments, the jury began its deliberations Wednesday afternoon. Thursday at about 11 a.m. they announced they had reached a verdict and the courtroom quickly began to fill with members of Ramirez's family, law enforcement officers who had worked on the case, and other observers.
Although the jury could have acquitted Lopez-Orozco or found him guilty of lesser charges, they were unanimous in declaring he was guilty of premeditated murder.
Lopez-Orozco sat stoically at the defense table listening to his translator as the verdict was read. He displayed no emotion over the verdict.
Fourth District Judge Timothy Hansen revoked Lopez-Orozco's bail and ordered him retained in custody. He directed that a pre-sentence investigation be conducted and set a date of Jan. 14 for the sentencing hearing.
Lopez-Orozco could face up to life in prison. The death penalty had been take off the table by former county prosecutor Aaron Bazzoli because Mexico, where Lopez-Orozco had fled after the murders, will not extradite anyone facing a potential death sentence.
The victims were discovered by two Airmen hunting in the area about ten days after authorities believe they were killed. Ramirez had dropped off several of her other children with family members on July 30, 2002, leaving with Lopez-Orozco, and it is believed she and the two children that had stayed with her were killed some time in the next 24 hours, then the car was burned to destroy evidence.
Among those seated Thursday in the courtroom were many members of the Ramirez family who been present at every court appearance of Lopez-Orozco since his return to the United States.
A gasp came from several of them as the first guilty verdict was read. As the judge read off the two remaining verdicts, members of her family were unable to hold back and began crying softly and holding onto one another in a show of unity.
"Thank you," said Yolanda Bernal said softly as she watched the members of the 12-person jury file out of the court room for the last time after serving through four weeks of trial.
Bernal, a close friend of Rebecca Ramirez, then focused her attention on Lopez-Orozco as sheriff's deputies led him away in handcuffs. She admitted that she was unwilling to leave the courtroom until she knew for certain that the man who killed her friend was no longer free.
Outside the courtroom, family members hugged and cried together, then hugged county Prosecutor Kristina Schinele, Sheriff Rick Layher, and other members of the team that had worked to convict Lopez-Orozco.
"It's a relief," said Ramirez' younger brother, Jose "Joe" Ramirez. "We can breathe now. There's a lot that we can let out, now that we don't have to leave it in."
"I'm glad this is final so my daughter can rest in peace," said Guadalupe "Lupe" Alvarez, who lost not only her daughter but also two of her grandchildren at the hands of Lopez-Orozco. She was living in Glenns Ferry at the time of the murders.
Alvarez extended her personal thanks those to who worked over the years to finally bring her daughter's killer to justice, including the jury that convicted him.
"They did a very good job," she said.
"It's over, thank God," added Helen Hernandez, who was Ramirez' mother-in-law and the grandmother of the two children who died.
"We've waited for this for long time," said Martin Hernandez, as he stood among weeping and hugging family members.
Rameriz was the mother of seven children in all. Her five other children had been staying with other relatives at the time of her death. Several different men were the fathers of her children. Hernandez, of Caldwell, her former common-law husband, from whom she had been divorced, was the father of Miguel.
After the killings he stepped up and took responsibility for raising all five of Rameriz's surviving children, several of whom have since grown to adulthood.
"We can't bring family back," Hernandez said, "but this does give closure to (the rest of) the family.
"This couldn't have happened without a lot of people," he said, thanking not only all the various law enforcement agencies in the United States and Mexico involved in the case, and the prosecutor's office attorney and staff in Elmore County, but also the still unidentified person who spotted Lopez-Orozco in Mexico and called the U.S. embassy. The embassy had then notified Mexican authorities, at which point the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the Mexican Federal Ministerial Police moved quickly to apprehend Lopez-Orozco in Zihuantanejo, Mexico, in October of 2009.
At the time of his arrest in in Mexico, Lopez-Orozco had been on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list since 2005.
After a lengthy set of extradition hearings in Mexico, he was returned to Elmore County in March of 2011 and arraigned on the triple murder charges.
On behalf of the family, Hernandez thanked "everyone who has kept us in their prayers over the years. They have been such a blessing to us."
County prosecutor Kristina Schindele, who had been a deputy prosecutor when the three bodies had first been found, said the case had haunted her for a decade. She was both happy and relieved at the outcome.
"All I can say is Lee (deputy prosecutor Lee Fisher) and I took the time and effort to present the best case we could, and then we relied on the system.
"This culminates a lot of years and a lot of effort by a lot of people."
She also praised the jury for being "very conscientious" about it's duties, noting "this is why our American justice system works."
Defense Attorney Terry Ratliff could not be reached for immediate comment.
For Sheriff Rick Layer, it had been one of the most emotional cases in his lengthy law-enforcement career, and he had vowed not to rest until the murderer of Ramirez and her children were brought to justice.
Sitting in the back of the courtroom he was obviously nervous waiting for the jury to appear, then let out a deep breath of satisfaction after the verdict was read.
Later, he said, "I believe that justice has been served.
"This has been a hard go for the family. It has always been a trauma for them and I hope they got closure today. This should help. They're a great family."
But Layher noted the verdict also helped bring closure for all the investigators who worked on the case, and his department as a whole.
"It was a horrific crime," he said, "with the little kids and everything. It was an emotional case.
"I think this also will help bring closure to the members of the (Mountain Home) fire department and Idaho State Police and the other agencies that were at the scene and saw everything there," he said.
"Today was a good day for everybody."