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Dead woman's father wonders: What more is there?

SPRING HILL

Lauren Ortiz died alone on a concrete porch behind the home of a man she barely knew.

Last Sept. 1, on a dark street sometime between 10 and 10:30 p.m., Ortiz, 24, got into a white F-150 truck with shiny rims driven by a 34-year-old man she had heard about through a mutual friend.

Back at his house, on a private road east of Brooksville, she drank four or five shots of Bacardi 151 and a cocktail of Everclear and orange juice, then went out to the porch to vomit. The man rolled her over, moved her head so she wouldn't choke, and went to bed.

A Hernando County sheriff's detective wrote a short report. On Nov. 19, he got the autopsy, which showed her blood alcohol level between .422 and .436, more than five times the legal limit. The report from the medical examiner said Ortiz died from "acute alcohol intoxication" and called her death an accident.

The detective closed the case.

• • •

Two months later, Bob Steffens, 63, a grieving father and a retired detective from New York, sat at a Dunkin' Donuts near his home in Spring Hill. He had gone to the Dunkin' Donuts to talk because his wife of almost 30 years wanted to move on and wanted him to do the same. He held up the sheriff's report between his thumb and his forefinger.

"On someone's life?" he asked. "That's my daughter's life."

His eyes got wet.

"I just want answers," he said. "That's all I want. There are questions about what happened to her.

"I just want to know: Why is my daughter dead?"

But looking into someone's death also means looking into someone's life. What if, he was asked, the answer is just that his daughter made the last of her many bad decisions?

"If that's what it is, that's what it is," he said. "But I can't leave my daughter with unanswered questions.

"I just can't."

• • •

He keeps his daughter's ashes in an urn above the television in his family room. He has nine pictures of her in his wallet and 10 pictures of her on pendants he wears around his neck.

He hasn't told some of his friends up North. There was no obit in the papers here. If people ask about his daughter, he tells them she passed away. Heart failure.

Since Ortiz's death, he has driven "20 or 30 times" to the house of the man she was with, Sarju Rampersad, to try to see what he looks like. He has gone more than a dozen times to the abandoned house where she had been living.

He plays racquetball at a club in Port Richey, nearly all day, nearly every day. Every night he polishes his car with the plate that reads NYC LAW.

"Maybe it's my background that makes me have all these questions," he said. "I lie in bed and I get these thoughts."

• • •

Why Norbert Street? Why did this man, Rampersad, pick her up on Norbert Street? It's almost a mile and a half from the abandoned house. Ortiz didn't like the dark, didn't like to walk, didn't like to be alone.

Rampersad told the detective, Jeffrey Swartz, he got pulled over after he picked her up, but there's no record of that.

How did she get so drunk so fast?

Did she drink four shots of Bacardi, which is what Rampersad told the first deputy who showed up, or was it five, which is what he told the detective? How much Everclear was in that cocktail?

In the morning, did Rampersad run to his mother's house, which is what he told the deputy, or did he call her, which is what he told the detective?

The sheriff's report said Rampersad and "a young female" walked in and out of the house after the crime scene tape was put up. How was that okay?

Why was there no test done for a date rape drug?

Why didn't Rampersad help her more?

Why wasn't he charged with criminal negligence?

"He went to sleep while somebody was dying in his house," Bob Steffens said.

Some of these questions don't have answers. Some do.

Bacardi 151 is 75.5 percent alcohol, and Everclear, grain alcohol, is so potent it can be used as disinfectant. She wasn't tested for the date rape drug because there were no physical signs that she had been sexually battered.

Said Donna Black, the Hernando sheriff's spokeswoman: "We deal in facts, and the facts did not support any charges."

• • •

Ortiz had grown up not far away, on a suburban cul-de-sac, in a stucco home with palm trees in front, a pool out back and leather couches inside. She swam for the team at the YMCA. She played the clarinet at school.

In family photo albums, she's at Disney, she's on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico, she's eating Oreos. She's smiling.

At 14, though, she started to get depressed. She didn't like her shape. She wore long pants in the summer. A psychiatrist wanted to put her on medication for her mood swings. Her parents thought she was too young and figured it was just a phase.

At 15, she started skipping school and sneaking out, and she was arrested for trespassing in somebody's pool.

At 16, she dropped out of Springstead High.

At 18, she got pregnant, had a son and married the father. She started going out often and coming home late. The divorce came barely two years in.

She had two daughters with a different man she lived with in Tampa. They did not marry. Later, after mutual domestic violence and arrests, the toddlers were put into foster care.

She got hired at a body shop, but the owners fired her for stealing.

"She would act like she was taking my advice," said Kari Tucker, her boss at the body shop. "But then she would fall back into her old routine."

She got jobs at Wal-Mart, Taco Bell, McDonald's, Checkers. Never kept them. Marijuana, crack, pain pills, heavy doses of over-the-counter cough medicine — whatever she could get. Some friends say she drank a little, some say a lot.

Bob Steffens and the rest of the family knew about some of this. Some of it they didn't.

"Months would go by," he said, "where we wouldn't hear from her."

She moved from address to address, Spring Hill, Tampa, run-down trailers, concrete homes, drab apartments. She was evicted twice. Toward the end, she was living a few blocks from U.S. 19, in a musty house with no electricity or running water.

She started selling herself, say some of her friends.

"She asked me one time if I knew of any guys who wanted to pay," said Zorinda Maryea, a friend from Tampa. She told Jeanne Williams, a friend from Hudson, that she had done it only once. "She was, like, 'I have no money. What am I supposed to do?' " Williams said.

She stayed at her parents' house for a while last spring, but left after she came home drunk, threw up in a sink and passed out naked on the floor. Her parents said she couldn't do that anymore.

"She'd say, 'Forget it, fine, I'll leave,' " said Robbie Steffens, 21, her brother.

"It wasn't that the family wasn't trying," said Glenn Kaminsky, 31, a cousin. "She was never unloved."

Her mother, Robyn Steffens, puts it like this:

"Lauren didn't like Lauren."

In May she stopped writing anything in her date book.

The last week of August, she spent a lot of time with Allan Daugherty, 32, a friend from Spring Hill.

"She always talked about her kids, and how she wanted to get them back," he said. "Sometimes she'd start crying. I'd ask her what's wrong. The only thing she'd say is that I wouldn't understand."

She wanted to meet Rampersad because she had heard he had a house and a car.

That last night, Sept. 1, Daugherty texted her saying he was coming to pick her up.

She texted Maryea at 8:06.

"F--- man just as im getting ready 2 go meet this guy allan calls me n tells me that he misses me n he wants 2 pick me up!"

Then she texted Daugherty, saying she loved him but that she was going to bed.

"theres nothing else 2 do in this hell hole! plus im tired."

That was at 9:52.

She texted Maryea at 10:03 saying her blind date was on the way.

"i am so nervous!" she wrote.

• • •

The paramedics were called at 7:22 a.m. They got there at 7:33. No pulse, their report said. No breathing.

In his sworn statement, Rampersad wrote this: "She was throwing up, asked her if she was ok, said yes."

• • •

Rampersad didn't respond to a letter sent or calls to his home seeking comment for this story.

He was born in New York. At one point he worked as a loader at the Wal-Mart distribution center in Hernando. He has declared bankruptcy four times, and he has gotten 12 traffic tickets, for speeding, careless driving and too-tinted windows.

In 1992, he threw his 16-year-old pregnant girlfriend onto a bed and hit her on the head and on her left arm, leaving red marks. He got two years of probation.

Running along the front of his three-bedroom house is a tall, tan, stucco wall with a wide, black, wrought iron gate that he built without proper county permits.

Etched into the concrete of the driveway are the words RAMPERSAD ESTATE.

• • •

Lauren's parents sat the other day at their dining room table.

"He didn't kill her," Bob Steffens said. "But he didn't do everything he could to save her."

"You're looking for a scapegoat," Robyn Steffens said. "Nobody poured alcohol down her throat."

"I just want the questions answered," he said.

"The question is answered," she said. "She's gone. Let it be."

"I know 85 percent of this probably was my daughter's fault," he said. "But if he would've helped her . . . and how do you let a crime scene get contaminated? How do you let people come and go?"

"Oh, God," she said. "You're still going on? I can't take it anymore."

"You don't have to take it," he said.

"Yeah, I do," she said. "You're obsessing."

"Until I get answers," he said, "I won't be able to rest. I won't rest."

"You're not accepting it," she said.

"Everything is too close," he said. "Maybe in one year, two years, three years."

"Maybe never," Robyn Steffens said.

• • •

They're trying to get custody of their daughter's daughters. The girls are 4 and 2.

"It's blood," Bob Steffens said.

Last month, on the phone, he said he was trying to separate his instincts as a detective from his feelings as a father.

But then he said he was waiting to hear back from an attorney friend in Brooksville to see what he thinks of the report. He said he also was thinking of calling the State Attorney's Office. Maybe, he said, if his daughter's case had gotten to them . . .

For now, though, he plays racquetball seven, eight hours a day. He wears tight tape and bandages around his legs, and braces on his knee, elbow and wrist. He has herniated discs in his neck and back and has to take pills to play.

It hurts him. He doesn't stop.

News researchers John Martin and Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4617.

. ABOUT THIS STORY

This story is based on sheriff's reports, court records from Hernando and Hillsborough counties, information taken from call and text message logs on Lauren Ortiz's cell phone, and interviews with her family, friends and others who knew her.

Dead woman's father wonders: What more is there? 04/06/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 8, 2008 10:48pm]

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