County settles lawsuit filed by family of slain nurse, agrees to pay $7.8 million

Jessica Ortega was shot to death by her estranged boyfriend in 2016.
Jessica Ortega was shot to death by her estranged boyfriend in 2016. Courtesy photo

Jessica Ortega, shot to death by her estranged boyfriend in 2016, won’t see her two children grow up.

She’ll still provide for them in a grim sense: Tuesday, Pierce County Council members approved a $7.8 million settlement that ends a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Ortega’s family.

The decision “allowed Pierce County to avoid an embarrassing trial,” according to a statement from the law office of John R. Connelly, which represented the family. “This murder could and should have been prevented.”

The lawsuit contended that the Sheriff’s Department failed to protect her after she sought help, and fell short of reasonable standards in their response to her initial call to law enforcement.

“(She) had contacted them pleading for help, and informing them that she was going to be killed,” attorneys wrote in a court briefing filed Nov. 9. “Unfortunately, she did not receive assistance and she was killed as she feared.”

Ortega, then 27, was killed on Feb. 20, 2016, four days after she sought a restraining order against her boyfriend, Marco Perea, 41.

She had been showering at home on Feb. 17 when Perea, already angry with her and speaking of demons in his head, appeared and accused her of having an affair. He held a gun to her head for 30 minutes, records state.

Ortega fled the house after Perea released her. She called 911, spoke to deputies and signed a police report with a description of what had happened.

“He had a gun pointed at my head telling me it was my time to die,” she wrote in a subsequent court filing seeking a no-contact order. She also said she feared Perea would be angry when he learned she intended to leave him.

That was a Thursday. On Saturday, Perea cornered Ortega at a University Place business where she worked as a nurse and shot her in the head.

He fled, leading law enforcement officers from multiple agencies on a high-speed chase that ended in a shootout near Tillicum. Perea fired multiple shots at officers before 12 officers opened fire, killing him.

Public records established that Perea had a lengthy criminal history that included 10 prior felony convictions and 37 arrests. At the time of the shooting, he was on state community supervision for an unrelated crime, and was required to wear an ankle monitor.

In response to the suit, county attorneys argued that sheriff’s deputies acted reasonably after Ortega sought the protection order, followed standard procedures, and attempted to locate Perea for a possible arrest before the shooting.

The case rumbled through the discovery process throughout much of 2018, generating thousands of pages of filings, declarations and depositions. Ultimately, the parties agreed to mediation, which led to the $7.8 million figure, agreed to by attorneys for both sides.

“The funds will go into trust for the two minor children, who were 4 and 5 years old at the time of their mother’s murder,” Ortega’s lawyers said.

Tuesday’s County Council vote to approve the settlement was unanimous. Council members did not comment on the specifics of the case. County risk manager Marybeth DiCarlo spoke briefly, saying only that she had consulted with the Sheriff’s Department and the county prosecutor’s office before agreeing that the settlement was appropriate.

Asked for comment Tuesday, sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer responded with a statement:

“Domestic violence calls are some of the most volatile and unpredictable which we respond to. The expectations of the public and even the courts, can sometimes exceed our ability to resolve these complex situations. Domestic violence is all too common in our society. We wish that each one of these could be prevented.”

News Tribune investigative reporter Sean Robinson won the 2016 Ted Natt First Amendment award for ongoing scrutiny of the Pierce County Prosecutor’s office. Since 2000, he has produced award-winning coverage related to criminal justice, government accountability and public disclosure.