From: Vol. 6, Issue 5, February 1-7, 2008
By Jonathan Volzke
The Capistrano Dispatch
Deputy Johnny Ortega: 1962-2008
Orange County Sheriff’s Deputy Johnny Ortega could spot a drunk driver a mile away, stare down the toughest gang members and even disarm felons with movie-star-style kicks. The one villian he couldn’t beat: cancer, which claimed the life of the 45-year-old father of three on January 21.
Ortega, whose illness forced him to retire from the department three years ago, patrolled San Juan Capistrano from 1987 to 1991. He was a perennial leader in snaring drunk drivers and became an expert on gangs. That led to his appointment to the prestigious Career Criminal Apprehension Team and Gang Enforcement Team. He worked with Lt. Mike Betzler in patrol and on the specialized teams.
“Johnny was one of those larger-than-life characters,” said Betzler, now Capistrano’s chief of Police Services. “He will be remembered for his courage, love for his family and dedication to the department…He was a true friend and partner. He will be sorely missed by all who had the honor of knowing or working with him.”
Ortega is survived by his wife of 24 years, Rebecca; his daughters, Lauren, Brianna and Jacqueline; his brothers, Edward, Marcos, and Steven; and his sisters, Carmen and Helen.
Ortega’s memorial, where he was retired with full department honors was attended by former Sheriff Brad Gates, former Under Sheriff Raul Ramos, former Assistant Sheriff Tim Simon and former Assistant Sheriff Kim Markuson, as well as acting Sheriff Jack Anderson and Assistant Sheriff Steve Bishop.
Anderson said an essay Ortega wrote as part of his application to the department said the job would require a good deputy to be a jack of all trades and to know when to apply those skills in any given situation. “Johnny certainly accomplished what he set out to do,” Anderson said.
“Through his tireless efforts and dedication to the law enforcement profession, Johnny not only became the ‘jack of all trades’ but also the master of integration of what he aspired, a true Renaissance man.”
Anderson noted Ortega’s personnel file was full of letters of appreciation and commendations, among them:
• In July of 1995 he received a letter from then-Gov. Pete Wilson congratulating him for his “…dedication and tremendous work,” on the Carl Claes homicide case. The murderers were a gang of seven juveniles, senselessly killing Claes because they wanted his new stereo system.
• In August of 1995 he was commended by Captain Robert Kemmis for his investigative work, which resulted in the quick capture of an inmate who had been inadvertently released from the jail.
• In 1998 Sheriff Michael Carona presented an official commendation to Ortega and the other members of the Homicide Detail for their work on a robbery-murder case from Lake Forest.
“As much as Johnny enjoyed his job and cared about the people he worked with, he loved and cared for each of you more,” Anderson said. “If we ever wanted to see that movie-star smile of his from under that great big mustache, all we had to do was get him to talk about his family.
“I would like to thank his family for sharing him with us and I hope you all realize just how much his law enforcement family cared about him too by the number of people that are here today from the Sheriff’s Department to pay their respects.”
Betzler said Ortega, a large man who wore a large mustache, was a real-life hero.
“On one occasion he disarmed a parolee armed with knife with a couple of well-placed kicks,” Betzler recalled. “One of the other suspects looked at me, and referring to Johnny, remarked with a grin, ‘Steven Segal.’ Even the suspects we arrested recognized him as like one of those super cops depicted in motion pictures, only he was the real thing.”