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Covina shooting ripples through extended family in Mexico

December 29, 2008 | 12:27 pm

Like they had for years, the two families -- one in the city of Torreon in Mexico, the other in Covina -- called each other late Christmas Eve on the radio.

In Covina, about 25 people -- Joseph and Alicia Ortega, their five children and their grandchildren --  celebrated; in Mexico, about 35 of their relatives celebrated at the home of Lilia Llamas Sotomayor, their niece. It was about 11 p.m. Amid the revelry, family members clicked a button on the radio and took turns wishing each other Christmas greetings.

“We did that every year. We were always used to calling each other on the radio,” Llamas Sotomayor, 51, said. “This year, it was my home’s turn to host the party. It was basically, ‘How are you? We’re all together here? How are you over there?’ They were happy and we were happy.”

Llamas Sotomayor said it was only until the next day, Christmas Day, that her cousin Charles Jr. called her brother Ernesto in Torreon to tell him about what happened just minutes after the cheerful conversations that traversed the radio and two countries.

Charles told his uncle that his grandparents, Joseph and Alicia Ortega; his own father, Charles Sr.; his mother, Cheri; his uncle James and his wife Terri; his aunt Sylvia; and his aunt Alicia and her 17-year-old son, Michael, had been murdered.

“It was horrible. We still can’t believe it,” Llamas Sotomayor said in a phone interview from Torreon, in the central Mexican state of Coahuila. “We talked to them minutes before this happened.”

Relatives in Mexico had been used to being visited by their American uncles, cousins and nephews. They in turn frequently visited the elder Ortega’s warm hearth in Covina. But now family in Torreon was traveling to Los Angeles to attend a mass funeral, and to help figure out how to best care for the Ortega children.

Joseph, 80, and Alicia, 70, visited Torreon at least twice a year. Alicia had been born in Torreon. Joseph was born in the United States, although his parents were from Torreon. During a visit to Mexico more than half a century ago, Joseph met Alicia and they got married 53 years ago. He was 27 years old and she was 17. They moved to L.A.

The elder Alicia’s family in Torreon, the Sotomayors, were relatively well-to-do and well-known, with many in the family running successful businesses. Some sent children to study abroad in Canada and Scotland. Most of the younger Sotomayors spoke English, gleaned both from studying and from travel, Llamas Sotomayor said.

Joseph and Alicia Ortega brought some of that business savvy with them. They opened a shop where airplane and other industrial parts were painted and dried in large ovens.

Some of their children worked at the shop, and eventually one of their sons, Charles Sr., took over operations of the business, with help from his young son.

“He was my uncles’ right hand,” Llamas Sotomayor said today. “He was always worried about them. They didn’t travel if Charlie didn’t go. Every time they came, Charlie came with them.”

Charles and his wife Cheri had five children, the oldest, Charles Jr., in his early 20s, Llamas Sotomayor said.

Also killed in the attack was James Ortega, who was Joseph and Alicia’s oldest child. He had also worked at his father’s business, but eventually opened his own paint shop, Llamas Sotomayor said. She said he was more serious than his brother Charles and more of a homebody, with his wife Terri, sticking close to his immediate family, which included three children, all adults.

“He made less trips here than Charlie, but if he did, it was always with his family,” Llamas Sotomayor said. “Terri had a very happy personality. She was a very good wife, and a very good mom. A very good person.” 

Both of the Ortegas’ sons were killed Christmas Eve. The Ortegas had three daughters, two of which were also murdered. One of them was Alicia Ortiz, who was killed with her 17-year-old son Michael.

“She was very strict. Her children spoke perfect Spanish, they wrote it and read it very well. She educated them very well. She wasn’t a scolder, but she was strict about their study. She wanted them all to be very good,” Llamas Sotomayor said, adding that she thought Alicia may have been a school nurse.

Of Sylvia Pardo, the ex-wife of the gunman Bruce Pardo, Llamas Sotomayor said she was a very hard worker with a cheerful demeanor, who had suffered a tragedy about 20 years ago, when the father of her two oldest children was killed in a car crash in Arizona. Llamas Sotomayor said Sylvia was a widow for many years until she married George Orza, a Canadian she apparently met through her work, who became the father of her youngest child, a 6-year-old girl.

Orza, who could not be reached for comment, now lives in Oklahoma.

She added that she'd never met Bruce Pardo. “Thank God I never met him,” she added.

But the report she got from other relatives in Mexico who had met him was not good.

“They didn’t get a good impression. They said, ‘He’s very strange, that man,’ ” Llamas Sotomayor recalled.

Llamas Sotomayor said some of her own siblings would take trips with the Ortegas and their children to Las Vegas, or go camping in the mountains. Sometimes, family in Mexico and the U.S. agreed to meet in different locations, such as Cancun, to get together. About three years ago, many relatives in Torreon traveled to L.A. to celebrate Joseph and Alicia Ortega’s 50th wedding anniversary.

“We had a big fiesta. Everyone here went there,” Llamas Sotomayor said.

“That family had an energy that was very impressive, that didn’t stop. They were very happy. They traveled a lot. They took trips to stay united.”

-- Hector Becerra