Josue D. Ortiz has spent six years in prison for the gruesome murder of two brothers gunned down inside their West Side apartment.
The arraignment Thursday of a gang leader and two others in those same killings is raising questions about Ortiz’s role and the possibility that he was wrongfully convicted in the double murder of Nelson and Miguel Camacho.
Federal prosecutors charged 7th Street Gang leader Efrain “Cheko” Hidalgo, Misael “Bori” Montalvo and Brandon Jonas with killing the Camachos on the evening of Nov. 11, 2004, inside their Niagara Street apartment.
The three defendants are accused of shooting Nelson, 36, and Miguel Camacho, 25, as part of a robbery attempt.
The new federal indictment accusing the three men of murder makes no mention of Ortiz, and several sources close to the case said prosecutors are looking into the possibility that he was wrongfully convicted in 2006 when he pleaded guilty to the murders.
“I find it a very curious situation that the government has moved to implicate three defendants in a capital murder case when someone else is already in custody serving prison time for those murders,” said Kevin W. Spitler, one of Montalvo’s defense lawyers.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph M. Tripi made no mention of Ortiz when the three men were arraigned Thursday and declined to comment afterward when asked about him.
A spokesman for the Camacho family – several of whom were in court Thursday – said that they are aware Ortiz could be innocent but that they want to wait to comment until more is known about the killings.
Several defense lawyers in the new murder case – the three men are charged with using a firearm to cause death – said they were unaware of Ortiz’s conviction.
“It’s certainly something we’ll look into,” said Donald M. Thompson, one of Jonas’ lawyers.
All three defendants, if convicted, could face the death penalty.
When Ortiz agreed to a plea deal with the Erie County District Attorney’s Office six years ago, he did so against advice of his lawyers.
John R. Nuchereno, Ortiz’s defense lawyer, declined to comment Thursday but, during the sentencing, told the judge in the case that his client took the plea deal after being “coached” by another inmate at the Erie County Holding Center.
Ortiz later tried to withdraw his plea, but Erie County Judge Michael L. D’Amico rejected his request and sentenced him to a maximum of 25 years in prison.
The allegations that others may have killed the Camachos also may fit with eyewitness accounts of that night in 2004 when neighbors said they saw three people fleeing the scene after shots were fired.
At the time of the murders, investigators said they were uncertain about a motive, although neighbors told them that the killings may have stemmed from a rumor that Nelson Camacho had won $65,000 in the lottery when, in fact, he had won only $200.
County prosecutors alleged that Ortiz, in a fit of rage, broke through the Camachos’ front door and shot both men several times.
One of the Camachos’ siblings – there were 10 brothers and sisters in the family – found the bodies that night after getting a call from another sibling.
Nelson Camacho, a cook at the Towne Restaurant in Allentown, is still remembered by family and friends by his childhood nickname, “Lobo,” the Spanish word for wolf, because he ran everywhere.
Family and friends remember Miguel – who was known as “Flaco,” which is Spanish for skinny – for his sense of humor.
During Thursday’s arraignment, Tripi outlined the allegations against Hidalgo, Montalvo and Jonas, and argued for continued detention of all three men, a request that was granted by U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeremiah J. McCarthy.
“They are murder charges and speak for themselves,” Tripi told the judge.
Hidalgo, who federal authorities have long considered a leader of the 7th Street Gang, has been in custody since his arrest last year in connection with a different murder case.
FBI agents allege that he and three others killed Eric Morrow, a 21-year old member of the rival 10th Street Gang, in 2009. Hidalgo was captured in Puerto Rico, where FBI agents believe he fled shortly after charges were filed against him.
The 7th and 10th Street gangs were involved in a drug-related turf war that often turned the West Side into a bloody battleground and eventually led to a crackdown by local and federal law enforcement officials.