At least 22 transgender Americans were killed in 2018. In honor of Transgender Day of Remembrance, read all of their stories here.
Editor’s note: Throughout our interviews, Janelle’s family did not consistently use female pronouns, which she preferred, to refer to Janelle. It is not uncommon for supportive family members of transgender people to use incorrect pronouns either occasionally or frequently. Per GLAAD guidelines, we chose to amend her pronouns in brackets wherever they were used incorrectly out of respect to Janelle and the way she wished to be seen.
Janelle Ortiz played many roles in the life of her younger sister, Rosenda “Rose” Ortiz. She was someone Rose played dress up with, bickered with; she was sometimes a mother figure, and other times a sister to gossip with.
But since Janelle’s death in September at age 28, those roles have sat empty for 19-year-old Rose.
Though Janelle’s Facebook name was “Nikki Enriquez” at the time of her death (Enriquez is her mother’s maiden name), her family said she asked everyone to call her Janelle, and most commonly went by Janelle Ortiz. When reporting on her passing, many outlets have either referred to her as Nikki Enriquez or misgendered her, using her deadname.
Janelle and Rose grew up on the Mexican border in Laredo, Texas. Rose was about eight years old when Janelle came out as transgender as a teenager, and said she has always accepted her older sister. For her, it was quite simple: “I wanted a sister [and she] wanted to be my sister.”
Rose remembers Janelle as someone who loved to party and strike up conversation with strangers. “She was very outgoing, really open to people,” she said. Janelle, whose Facebook cover photo remains a picture of Rihanna, was a big fan of pop music. Singers like Nicki Minaj, Lady Gaga, and Shakira were among her favorites.
“[She] would always dress me up like Shakira and [she] would tell me to sing like her. And I'm like, ‘I don't know how to sing!’” Rose remembered. “[She] would call out to my mom's room and say, ‘Look mom! I dressed up Rose as Shakira!’”
Janelle’s family characterized her as an incredibly caring person. When her father or her aunt, Patricia Ortiz, would offer her a place to stay, she frequently tried to accommodate her friends, too—many of them trans women without housing. “You know sometimes when you’re transgender or gay, your family doesn’t want you, they don’t accept you. So those were the ones that [she] would bring to the house,” Patricia explained. “[She] said ‘No, you can come to my house. Here they’re fine with it.’”
“If a person needed a favor, [Janelle] was always there,” said Rose. “[She] was a person of heart, just like I am.” Rose said she learned a lot of things from her sister. “Because of [her], I knew how to fight,” she says. “She would go out of [her] way to defend me and if it wasn't me, it would be one of [her] cousins or one of my brothers.”
Rose bonded with Janelle over “girl stuff,” often taking trips downtown together to pick out hair dye. She remembers Janelle’s long, black hair, which, she says, Janelle didn’t shy away from flaunting.
Rose’s fond memories of her sister, who was older than her by nine years, are couched between times of hardship that the two faced alongside their three brothers. Janelle was the second oldest of the five Ortiz children.
Janelle, who was teased for her gender expression as a teenager, struggled in high school. Her aunt Patricia remembers when Janelle would confide in her about not wanting to go to school. “She just wanted to be listened [to], just wanted to be heard, just wanted for somebody to say, ‘It’s okay,’” she said. “So that’s what I did.”
During Rose's teenage years, after her mother moved away, Janelle stepped in to play a motherly role, she said. “Janelle would always support me because she would always tell me, even though my mom's not here, ‘I'm here as a sister, you can see me as a sister now,’” she said. “Janelle was always there. She would tell me, ‘If mom can't be here to do the job, then I'll be the mom and you can be my mom.’”
As an adult, Janelle lived in Laredo between family members’ homes, hotels, and the streets. Rose said she was often concerned for her sister, who she believed was using drugs, and wasn’t always sure if she had a place to stay. “Sometimes I would worry about my [sister], like where would [she] be right now?”
On Saturday, September 15, Janelle Ortiz became the 21st known transgender American to be killed in 2018.
Police in Laredo found Janelle’s body near a gravel pit next to mile marker 15 on Interstate 35. She was discovered with a fatal gunshot in her skull. By the time her body was found, her confessed killer, Border Patrol agent and Navy veteran Juan David Ortiz (no relation to Janelle’s family), was already in custody.
On Friday, September 14, the day before Ortiz allegedly killed Janelle and Griselda Alicia Hernandez, a woman named Erika Peña almost became another one of his alleged victims, but managed to escape Ortiz’s car, running to a nearby Texas DPS trooper for help. Peña eventually helped lead police to Ortiz, who they found hardly an hour after he allegedly killed Janelle.
Police went looking for Janelle after Ortiz told them where he left her body and confessed to killing her, along with the three other women who had been found dead in the two weeks prior to his arrest: Melissa Ramirez, 29; Claudine Ann Luera, 42; and Griselda Alicia Hernandez, 35.
“If a person needed a favor, [Janelle] was always there. [She] was a person of heart."
For Janelle, the killings hit home before she became a victim; she had been friends with the three women who had been killed, and she knew a killer had been picking them up on the San Bernardo strip she frequented for work. According to Patricia Ortiz, when authorities found Melissa Ramirez’s body, she was wearing a shirt she had borrowed from Janelle.
“[She] was on the lookout,” Rose said. “[She] would tell [her] friends, like ‘Hey be on alert that there's a killer picking up women and killing them and throwing them outside of city limits.’ They were panicked. They didn't know what to do.”
Authorities believe Ortiz was targeting sex workers as his victims. Ortiz told police that he hoped "to eradicate all the prostitutes." Rose is less concerned with whether or not her sister was a sex worker than she is with the way that people may use that information to discredit her and the other victims. “I certainly don't want people to be telling these victims that [because] they're sex workers, they deserved it, which they didn't,” she said. “It just makes me mad because they don't know the life of them. They're just quick to judge.”
According to The National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), transgender people experience higher levels of “poverty, unemployment, homelessness, negative interactions with police, incarceration, and violent victimization.” As a result, the survey also notes, “many transgender people participate in the sex trade in order to earn income or as an alternative to relying on homeless shelters and food banks.” Due to systemic inequality corresponding to race and gender, Black and Latinx transgender women experience all of the above at even higher rates. According to the Trans Murder Monitoring research project, between 2008 and 2017, 62 percent of the 2,609 reported cases of trans women killed worldwide were sex workers.
“I certainly don't want people to be telling these victims that [because] they're sex workers, they deserved it, which they didn't."
On the night of her death, Janelle was reportedly walking with Stephany Gonzalez on the San Bernardo strip. The two were avoiding black trucks based on reports about a potential suspect who was seen with Ramirez, the first victim, before her death. But Ortiz allegedly stopped to pick up Janelle in a white Dodge Ram pickup.
In his confession, Ortiz detailed the encounters that precluded the killings he carried out. Webb County District Attorney Isidro Alaniz described to Broadly Janelle’s last moments as told by Ortiz to investigators. “According to Ortiz, when Ortiz took Janelle to the gravel mounds and pulled the gun, Janelle did not put up a fight and stated something to the effect of ‘Do what you need to do or have to do,’” said Alaniz.
Juan David Ortiz is currently being held at Webb County Jail on a $2.5 million bond. He faces six charges: four counts of murder, unlawful restraint, and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. His case will be presented to a grand jury on December 5.
The week after her death, Janelle’s family held her funeral in Laredo, wearing T-shirts with her portrait. Patricia said that at least one extended family member made it known that they didn’t want Janelle dressed in women’s clothes at the viewing, but Patricia and Rose knew that Janelle would have wanted otherwise. “Me and Rose told my family, ‘No, no, no. We’re going to put [her] in whatever [she] wanted to be,” said Patricia. “[She] wanted to be a female, that’s what it’s gonna be.”
To say their goodbyes, the family dressed Janelle in a red dress resembling the one Aretha Franklin was buried in the month before. Janelle had seen photos of her service and remarked to her family that she’d want to be remembered the same way.
Transgender Day of Remembrance falls exactly two months after Janelle’s funeral. Today, Janelle’s family is still coming to terms with her death. “People tell me, ‘It's okay, [she]'s resting,’” said Rose, “but it's not gonna hit me yet, and it hasn't hit me yet, because I see [her] pictures and I'm like, How can it happen to [her]? How can an innocent human being like my [sister] be killed just like that?”