Paths split, then came together in tragic fashion
No one could have predicted how the lives of two young friends who worked at a Grand Junction Mexican restaurant would intersect years later on opposite sides of the law.
In their youths, Omar Infante-Ortiz and Ricky Valdez worked side by side at La Bamba Mexican Restaurant. Both wanted to become cops. Valdez did, and works for the Grand Junction Police Department. Infante-Ortiz didn’t.
Years passed, and last October, while responding to a report that a man was on the run after firing a round into an apartment off North Avenue, police located the suspect minutes away. After thinking the suspect, 25-year-old Infante-Ortiz, waved a gun at him, Officer Valdez fired three shots, hitting Infante-Ortiz in the stomach and leg.
Valdez was cleared of any wrongdoing in the shooting and learned later whom he had shot.
On Wednesday morning, after nearly a year of being in custody at the Mesa County Jail, Infante-Ortiz said during his sentencing hearing that he was not pointing a gun at police but was trying to drop the weapon. He explained how he was coming home to his trailer house at the A&W Trailer Park the night of Oct. 16, 2007, to tell his family goodbye. He knew he would be going to jail after a gun he was holding accidentally went off at a friend’s house about 20 minutes earlier during a dispute over money.
“I have never been a violent person,” Infante-Ortiz told Judge Richard Gurley through the help of an interpreter. “I love my children. They love me. I would never hurt them. What pains me is I have never carried a weapon in my entire life. It’s going to cost me 10 years of my life ... (and with illegal immigration charges) this is going to cost me double for something so stupid.”
According to terms of his plea agreement, Infante-Ortiz was sentenced to 10 years in prison and probably will be deported after serving his sentence because of his illegal status, completely severing his ties with family members who all live in the United States.
He said he agreed to the plea deal because he couldn’t handle being locked up in the county’s Cedar pod, an area reserved for the county’s most violent offenders. There, Infante-Ortiz said, he was beaten up and cut by convicted killer Lonnie Herrera “for no reason.”
Herrera was sentenced last month to life in prison for shooting and killing his pregnant girlfriend, 24-year-old Anna Maria Macias.
Infante-Ortiz said he didn’t press charges because it was clear Herrera would be punished for Macias’ slaying.
Infante-Ortiz told Gurley his first mistake was hanging out with his brother-in-law, 21-year-old Marcos
Mendoza, a person whom he described as a gang member. His second mistake, he said, was being a heavy drinker, a habit he acquired when he was 18.
Infante-Ortiz was more than three times the legal driving limit for alcohol when he and Mendoza drove to an apartment at 2852 1/2 Belford Ave., No. 2, to dispute a rumor that he had stolen money from three friends who lived there. He was allowed inside, an argument ensued and one apartment resident pulled out a knife.
Infante-Ortiz said he took a gun from Mendoza in an effort to diffuse the situation, but it went off accidentally.
An affidavit for Infante-Ortiz, with statements from the victims, says the defendant pulled a black, semiautomatic pistol from his back pocket and waved it around the apartment. Infante-Ortiz pointed the gun “directly at (a man’s) head with the barrel inches away” with his finger on the trigger before suddenly lifting the gun and firing one shot into the ceiling and fleeing with Mendoza, the affidavit said.
Infante-Ortiz said he then drove back to his home, where police officers surrounded him in the dark. Police said they lit up the area that night with spotlights.
“How could I point the gun if I couldn’t see where the officer was?” Infante-Ortiz said. “I have no ill feelings toward the officers or anything like that. I don’t blame them. The fault is mine. It was two big mistakes.”
Gurley said he trusted Officer Valdez’s intuition and considered him to be level-headed.
When Valdez realized whom he had shot, he was shocked, said Infante-Ortiz’s attorney, public defender Ryan Esplin. Assistant District Attorney Rich Tuttle said Valdez had been apprised of the plea agreement and found it acceptable, but Valdez did not attend Wednesday’s hearing.
Gurley questioned why Infante-Ortiz would stay out of the United States, saying Infante-Ortiz had been deported but returned in 2005.
“It didn’t stop you before,” he said. “You’re still going to one day be out and with your family. It’s just going to be delayed.”