Nearly 24 years after Lela Rockwell’s body was found half-naked and beaten to death under a viaduct on North Temple, Jose Ortiz-Garcia admitted to killing her.
Ortiz-Garcia, 58, pleaded guilty to capital murder Thursday before a judge in 3rd District Court. He was immediately sentenced to up to life in prison.
Ortiz-Garcia’s plea allowed him to escape capital punishment for the crime and prompted prosecutors to drop four additional felony charges against him that each could have earned him an additional sentence of up to life in prison.
The Utah Board of Pardon and Parole will determine how much time Ortiz-Garcia spends behind bars. That decision may not be announced for weeks or months.
Ortiz-Garcia killed the 62-year-old Rockwell on Nov. 10, 1989. But it took Salt Lake City police more than two decades for investigators to identify a suspect in the case.
No witnesses could place an assailant at the scene. There were no security cameras near the viaduct, no identifying information left behind.
In 2010, DNA collected at the scene turned up a match through a search in a national database: Ortiz-Garcia, who was incarcerated in federal prison in South Carolina. He was then charged with the woman’s death.
Last year, Ortiz-Garcia was also indicted for a murder in Oregon that happened just eight days after Rockwell’s body was discovered near 380 W. North Temple. The victim in that case was 33-year-old Kuen Yin Ng, a transient. That case is pending.
Now-retired medical examiner Sharon Schnittker, who conducted the autopsy on Rockwell in 1989, testified at a preliminary hearing in May that the woman had many injuries to her body that appeared “new” at the time of her death: bite marks on her neck, breasts, shoulders and abdomen; a broken rib; bruising all over her body; a mark around her neck that seemed to indicate strangulation; blunt-force damage to her genitals and anal tearing.
“This was a murder,” Schnittker said.
Ortiz-Garcia was transported to Utah State prison immediately following his hearing Thursday.
He may be ordered to pay restitution in addition to his prison sentence, but the amount will be determined at a later date, according to court documents.