In a Schenectady County courtroom Monday, Vanessa Washington held a photo of her sister, Valerie.
Valerie, she said, showed no fear. She showed strength, generosity and a tremendous faith in God.
“The murder of my sister,” Vanessa Washington told the court, “has left a deep hole in our souls, especially my mother, who is now confined to a wheelchair in a nursing home.”
Washington’s comments came at Monday’s sentencing of 44-year-old Harold Michael Ortiz, who admitted killing Valerie.
Ortiz, most recently of Schenectady, pleaded guilty in June to second-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping and other charges in exchange for a total sentence of 30 years to life in state prison.
Judge Matthew Sypniewski imposed that sentence Monday, calling the life term the only appropriate punishment for Ortiz.
Ortiz has been jailed since Sept. 2, 2015, when he was accused of attacking and killing the 55-year-old woman inside 1330 Union St. He was also accused of attacking and leaving for dead another resident of the building, 65-year-old Ralph Carson.
Authorities found Carson and the body of Washington under piles of debris in the building’s basement.
“I am sorry for my despicable actions,” Ortiz told the court. “At this point, there is nothing I can do or say that would change what has been done. I am sincerely sorry for all that has happened.”
The case gained attention for the cruelty of the acts: Washington was attacked at the apartment house where she lived and was buried in the basement; Carson was attacked at the same apartment house and left to die, only to be saved by a tip from Ortiz’s own brother.
Valerie’s brother Carlos Washington, who traveled to Schenectady from his home in South Carolina, told the court the differences between the two states’ court systems.
South Carolina, he told the court, has the death penalty. Had Ortiz killed Valerie there, he said, “I guarantee you he would have gotten it.”
Carlos Washington also referenced Ortiz’s past. Ortiz served every day of a 17-year sentence for an attempted murder in Brooklyn, only to be released with no supervision as that crime happened just before post-release supervision became mandatory.
Ortiz wasn’t free more than two months before he killed Washington and almost killed Carson.
Carlos Washington questioned the mental health care Ortiz received in prison, the lack of a release plan even to a halfway house and the lack of notification to his new neighbors about his criminal past.
“You don’t let a lion out that you think has been tamed for 17 years and think he’s not going to kill,” Carlos Washington said. “Especially when you walk into a world that’s not ready for him and he’s not ready for the world.”
Ortiz’s attorney Steve Signore said his client is remorseful. Signore also agreed with the Washington family, that “there are some gaps in our criminal justice system, which need to be sewn up.”
Signore specifically cited gaps in addressing individuals with mental health issues who aren’t getting the help they need.
“There are no circumstances the court can possibly see how Mr. Ortiz should or could ever come back into society,” Sypniewski said. “It’s clear from the circumstances of the case that if that were to take place that the likelihood of the defendant reoffending is almost a certainty.”
The judge also urged the future parole board that first considers Ortiz’s release nearly 30 years from now to review all available documents, including the statements from the Washington family, saying he believes the board would come to the same conclusion — that Ortiz can’t be released.
In all the photos of Valerie, Vanessa Washington told the court, she is smiling. “Big smiles, like the sun,” Vanessa said. “She was sunshine and she is dearly missed.”