SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Puerto Rican boxer Felix Verdejo was ordered held without bail Monday in the death of his 27-year-old pregnant girlfriend and an unborn child in the latest femicide to outrage the island after the governor declared an emergency over gender-based violence earlier this year.
Keishla Rodríguez went missing Thursday after she did not show up to the San Juan pet salon where she works as a groomer. Her remains were later found floating in a lagoon under a heavily trafficked bridge in the island's capital.
News of her death came two days after 35-year-old Andrea Ruiz was found lifeless and partially burnt in the mountain town of Cayey in another case that women's rights advocates say highlights the shortcomings of Puerto Rico's justice system in protecting women in situations of abuse.
Ruiz had filed a domestic violence complaint in court against Miguel Ocasio, her partner, but it was dismissed by a judge. He later confessed to killing her, police said.
The two femicides have hit a nerve on an island where activists say violence against women has worsened since the devastating 2017 Hurricane Maria.
"There should be no doubt that we are in a state of emergency due to gender violence," Pierluisi said in a written statement. "The pain, anger and indignation that we feel every time we witness a crime of gender violence has to be kept alive in us so that we do not rest in our responsibility to protect, prevent and abolish this evil, as well as to do justice for all the victims."
Verdejo, 27, turned himself in to federal authorities Sunday night. He faces federal charges for kidnapping and carjacking resulting in death, as well as the killing of an unborn child. While Puerto Rico does not have the death penalty, the Olympic athlete could face capital punishment if convicted because the case falls under federal jurisdiction.
Missing persons case turns into homicide probe
Rodríguez was reported missing after her boss alerted relatives that she hadn't shown up for work. An "alerta rosa," or a pink alert, which applies to missing or kidnapped women over 18, was activated.
Her family immediately went to local media to spread the word about the disappearance. They describe Keishla as a girl who was close with her family and loved animals. They quickly suspected Verdejo, the man they said she had dated for 11 years and often joined when he traveled to train in the United States. Her relatives said the years-long relationship between Rodríguez and Verdejo was complicated and rife with abuse.
Keila Ortiz, Rodríguez's mother, who lives in Orlando, landed in Puerto Rico within hours of Rodríguez going missing. She said Rodríguez and relatives had been overjoyed at the news of the pregnancy. But the boxer did not want the child, because he was a public figure who had a wife and daughter, Ortiz told Telemundo.
"He threatened her to not have his baby," Ortiz said, adding that she had spoken to her daughter the morning she vanished, after saying she was going to meet Verdejo to show him a pregnancy test.
She told him: "Take it easy. I have the baby. You don't even have to admit it. My baby will have my last names, I'm not going to bother you."
Verdejo was brought in for questioning on Friday but refused to cooperate with police. That same day, Rodríguez's car was found abandoned in Canovanas, a town in northeast Puerto Rico over a dozen miles from San Juan.
Then, on Saturday, police received a tip that an unidentified blonde woman in blue clothing was floating in the San José Lagoon. She had an ornate diamond tattoo on her nape — just like Verdejo, who goes by the alias Diamante, or Diamond.
Rodríguez's family was on a small motorboat in the lagoon as maritime police retrieved the body. Verdejo's car was seized hours later by authorities after a similar one was seen on video footage of the bridge near the lagoon.
The following day, Rodríguez was identified as the dead woman through dental analysis.
Verdejo turned himself in to authorities that night, and was soon charged after a witness involved in the crime went to authorities and offered first-hand testimony.
The witness said Verdejo asked to help to terminate Rodríguez's pregnancy, according to an FBI affidavit. After reaching out to Rodríguez to meet in his car near her home, the professional boxer punched her in the face and injected her with unidentified drugs. Then, Verdejo and the witness bound the pregnant woman's hands and feet with wires and tied a block to her. They took her to the Teodoro Moscoso bridge at the San José Lagoon and threw her into the water.
Verdejo shot at his partner of 11 years from the bridge above, the affidavit states.
Domestic violence complaint dismissed
In the case of Ruiz, authorities say there is a paper trail of red flags pointing to abuse.
In late March, she went to a local court in the central city of Caguas to pursue a domestic violence charge against Ocasio, the man she had been dating for the last eight months. Authorities say there were previous domestic violence complaints against him but provided no details.
On Thursday, she was found dead and burnt in a wooded area of mountainous Cayey. López said the "detonator" was that Ruiz had decided to leave him.
Ocasio threatened her after going through her cell phone's content and allegedly seeing messages he didn't like, Puerto Rico Police Commissioner Antonio López said at a press conference Saturday .
But the judge did not order Ocasio's arrest.
"Nor was a protection order issued, and the result of that you already know," he said.
He said that there was overwhelming evidence against Ocasio and a confession that he had killed her. Ocasio was jailed and a bail of $1.1 million ordered.
Anuchka Ramos, Ruiz's cousin, wrote an editorial in local daily newspaper El Nuevo Día reminiscing about their childhood together and lamenting her sudden, violent death.
"Andrea is more than a body thrown in a faraway, isolated place," she wrote. "She was a human form of immense light whose smile was hollowed out."
Protesters demand action as violence persists
The recent femicides, which have received around-the-clock police attention and media coverage, are part of a wave of violence against women that advocates and experts say has been aggravated by the pandemic and recent natural disasters.
The island has registered 21 femicides this year, according to The Observatory for Gender Equity, a coalition of academics and women's rights groups considered a leading authority in tracking gender-based violence in Puerto Rico. The figure is on track to keep up with last year, when 60 women were killed. The Puerto Rican Police Department had recorded eight deaths of women and girls as of March 30; the department uses a separate methodology for tallying homicides and has been criticized for under-counting femicides.
Debora Upegui-Hernández, the observatory's analyst, told the Miami Herald that there have been more intimate homicides this year than there had been at this point last year. She partially attributes the high number of femicides in April — at seven, the highest monthly number of 2021 — to the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in Puerto Rico, saying the pandemic has created a volatile situation for women.
Upegui-Hernández questioned why the pink alert had been activated for Rodríguez but not for two other women who had gone missing in March and whose cars were found.
"Why hadn't they activated it before?" she said of Rodríguez's case, the first time the alert was used.
On Sunday afternoon, hundreds of people, mostly women, gathered at the Teodoro Moscoso bridge, blocking traffic and denouncing the government for not doing enough to curb violence against women. They waved purple flags — the color used by advocates to rally against gender-based violence — as they stood above the blue waters of the San José Lagoon, less than 24 hours after Rodríguez's body had been pulled from its shores.
An all-women drumming collective accompanied a crowd chanting, "If they touch one, they touch us all." The bridge's walls were plastered with the names and photos of women murdered in Puerto Rico.
Bereliz Nichole Rodríguez, Rodríguez's sibling, showed up dressed in her sister's work uniform, blue scrubs covered in a print of dog illustrations. She cried as she held up a pale purple poster of her smiling sister holding a black dog at work, framed by the words: "Her name is Keishla and we want her alive."
Judicial branch launches probe into missteps
The deaths of Ruiz and Rodríguez have reignited scrutiny over the government's response to a tide of violence against women that advocates say has been exacerbated by pandemic lockdowns.
Many expressed outrage at Puerto Rico's Financial Oversight and Management Board, which supervises the island's finances, after it preliminarily allocated just about $225,000 of the $7 million that Pierluisi had requested to finance the emergency declaration he signed in January.
The FOMB issued a statement saying media reports that claimed it had "reduced government funding to fight gender violence" were "inaccurate" and adding that the budget was not finalized and they were collaborating with the government to work on its fiscal plan.
Pierluisi countered the statement at a Monday press conference, saying that they had not allocated the money to finance the emergency order's steering committee, but that "they can still correct, they can still rectify" this budgeting decision.
The committee created after the January gender violence emergency declaration to offer policy recommendations released a statement detailing some of the work it has so far done, noting that 17 activities of the 37 outlined in the executive order's action plan were completed or in progress.
Puerto Rico Supreme Court Justice Maite Oronoz released a statement after Ruiz's death, saying she would launch an investigation into what went wrong.
"They kill us for being women. The very scene of Andrea's crime sends the message that the lifeless bodies of girls and women are inferior. These femicides are not isolated cases," she said. "They are the result of a society that normalizes violence against women through sexist attitudes."
In response to Ruiz's death, she called for a meeting with Puerto Rico's administrative judges, noting the "essential role" the justice system plays in addressing gender violence. The gender violence cases seen in Caguas, where Ruiz's legal proceedings were held, have been reassigned to a special domestic violence court in the same region.
At the press conference Monday, Pierluisi advocated for education about gender identity, and said the government had to improve in areas such as data collection.
"In the abominable case of Andrea Ruiz, it appears that our system failed her," he said, adding that he personally read the complaint Ruiz had presented. He said that Ruiz, flattened by the lack of support she found in the legal system, lost interest in pursuing her case.
María Conte, the director of the Institute of Forensic Sciences, said that their analysis concluded that both Rodríguez and Ruiz had died by homicide. Domingo Emanuelli Hernandéz, the island's secretary of justice, said that Verdejo could also face state charges for murder, in addition to the federal crimes of kidnapping and carjacking leading to Rodríguez's death and that of the unborn child.
In the meantime, the families of the two murdered women are asking for accountability and justice.
"They killed my daughter and my little grandchild," Keila Ortiz, Rodríguez's mother, told reporters in tears after Verdejo turned himself in to federal authorities.(c)2021 Miami Herald Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.