Trial ordered in Utah cold-case murder of 62-year-old woman
Larry Begay took the same route to work every day: North Temple, under the viaduct, past the railroad tracks. It was quiet, usually. Unremarkable.
But Nov. 10, 1989, wasn't like most days.
That was the day he found the body of a woman, half-naked and unmoving, on the gravel beneath the bridge.
Nearly 24 years after he stumbled upon the woman's corpse, Begay testified against her accused killer: 58-year-old Jose Ortiz-Garcia.
Begay's testimony led off a two-day preliminary hearing in 3rd District Court where prosecutors laid out the evidence against Ortiz-Garcia in the slaying of Lela Rockwell.
On Wednesday, Judge Deno Himonas found enough evidence to order Ortiz-Garcia stand trial on five first-degree felonies: capital murder, aggravated robbery and three counts of aggravated sexual assault. If found guilty of capital murder, he could be put to death.
An arraignment was set for May 24.
Begay, the only eyewitness called to testify in this case, did not recognize the man in the yellow jumpsuit sitting quietly at the defense table, hands folded in his lap. There was no one else in sight the morning he came upon Rockwell's body, he said.
For decades, no one could place an assailant at the scene. Investigators struggled to identify a suspect in Rockwell's murder, who was 62 at the time of her death.
It took more than two decades before preserved DNA evidence allegedly turned up a match to Ortiz-Garcia, who was incarcerated in federal prison in South Carolina in 2010, when he was 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.
Witnesses on Tuesday described Rockwell as thin but healthy. She had short gray hair and was last seen wearing a button-down plaid shirt, Levis and white sneakers. She carried a round purse whose contents were later discovered strewn across the train tracks several feet away from her body.
Rockwell left her downtown hotel Royal Executive Suites on Thursday afternoon. About 7 a.m. the next morning, Begay said, he found her body. No one was sure how or why she wound up under the North Temple overpass.
Now-retired medical examiner Sharon Schnittker, who conducted the autopsy on Rockwell, said 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 testified.
Defense attorneys asked whether Rockwell's husband, an alleged drinker and wife-beater, may have been responsible for some of the physical damage. He had put Rockwell in LDS Hospital just days earlier, which may explain why she had been staying at the hotel, police said.
But Schnittker estimated Rockwell died sometime overnight between 12:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m., during which time Rockwell's husband, who was not named in court Tuesday, had checked into a substance abuse treatment program for his alcoholism, investigators said.
Former Salt Lake City Police homicide investigator Jill Candland said police interviewed hotel guests, business owners and occupants of nearby homeless shelters. They also solicited tips from the public. For years, they got nothing.
Eventually, Candland put the preserved DNA collected from Rockwell's body into a national database in the hope that someday, something would turn up.
"The bite marks on her were so unusual I thought the suspect maybe had done it before, or they would do it again in the future," Candland said. "Then, maybe, we'd have a chance of finding them."