Tuesday, November 21, 2017
Public safety

Attack killed woman's hope for new life

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Karen Ortaliz had spent a week in hiding.

Hiding from 38 years of uninspired marriage. From a run-down house and a dead brown lawn. From hopelessness.

She hid in her parents' house and another apartment. And in the tender love of a new man.

But on Tuesday afternoon, Karen's past caught up, armed with jealousy and a gun.

• • •

Karen met Michael Ortaliz at King High School in Tampa. They were young and in love and rode horses together. He took her to Thonotosassa sometimes to ride.

She doesn't remember how he proposed. It just sort of happened, she said, and they got married.

They had two sons: Michael Jr., now 37, who has Down syndrome; and Paul, who is now 27.

The family lived on Leaning Oak Drive, a sleepy street in Port Richey with a cul-de-sac at the end. The sound of traffic is muffled by wooden fences, single-family homes and palm trees. The sidewalks are traveled mostly by small children on bicycles.

Joanne and Michael Seitz, who live next door, remember seeing Michael mowing the lawn or barbecuing in the back yard. In the evening, he and Karen walked their black-and-white dog down the street, holding hands.

A "Beaver Cleaver" family, the Seitzes said.

The Ortaliz's marriage started out like any other: ups and downs. But those arcs grew further apart. His family didn't like her, she said. Michael hated that she made more money than he did (though Karen wouldn't say where they worked). He stayed angry and silent.

"When are you going to talk about it?" she'd ask.

"Never," he'd say.

The marriage became quiet and oppressive. The house fell into disrepair. The grass was patchy and dead. She wanted to fix it. He wouldn't give her the money. She wanted to paint the house any color but beige. He said no. Their love withered like the lawn.

Six years ago, she said, he made her quit her job.

"He knew I wasn't happy," she said, "but he didn't care."

A year and a half ago, she took her son Michael to meet a companion for people with disabilities, John Holman.

A stocky man with a gray ponytail and beard and often seen wearing a leather biker vest, John looked tough at a distance, neighbors said. Up close, though, he was warm and nice and had smooth skin.

Ten miles south of Karen's house, John's neighborhood in New Port Richey is just like hers. Sidewalks cross short, green lawns. Small stucco houses line the streets. John's house sits on a corner with the yellow porch light always glowing.

Angelique Haverland, a neighbor, remembers seeing him across the street in his garage, always tinkering with his truck. He rode a big red motorcycle that he kept in mint condition. In his back yard, massive palm trees tower over his small home. Haverland said John raised them from seedlings.

He was married once and had a daughter, but he divorced years ago.

He had a soft spot that Karen noticed.

"I thought he was nice to the kids," she said. "I thought he was kind."

At 61, John was older than her husband. He was more fun. He worked to show Karen's older son a good time.

He took Karen out to dinner.

• • •

Back on Leaning Oak Drive, things got worse. Karen, now 57, said Michael became controlling, bossy. Feelings faded. She wanted out.

One morning about two weeks ago while Michael was at work, Karen saw her opportunity.

She began loading her things into her white Ford Explorer. She wasn't going to leave a note.

Then Michael pulled up in the driveway.

He told her to stop, pleaded with her, tried to take her things back into the house.

"There's nothing you can do," she said. "I'm going to leave no matter what."

He tried standing in front of the hood. Eventually, he stepped aside. She was gone.

Karen spent the week hiding with her parents and at another apartment and with John. Her son Michael met up with her at her parents' home in Brentwood Estates, a tidy mobile home park for seniors off New York Avenue. Paul stayed with his father.

About noon Tuesday, Karen, her older son and John were going to a restaurant for lunch and a party for the children John works with. John drove them back to her parents' house to get a few things before returning to the party.

Karen got out of the Explorer and walked up the driveway. John got out and followed her. He said he wanted to meet her mother and tell her how much he loved Karen. Her mother refused.

"Come on," Karen said to John. "Let's just go ahead and leave." They started to get into the truck.

Her husband, Michael, came out of nowhere.

He pointed a gun at John, authorities said, and opened fire.

Karen heard Michael screaming as he pulled the trigger: "I shot you, you bastard. I shot you."

She was watching from the passenger's side when Michael fired his last round. John's blood sprayed. She said it looked like his head exploded.

That's when she ran.

She tried to take cover behind the back of the SUV. Michael rounded the truck.

"I'm gonna shoot you, too."

"Mike, honey, please, don't do this," Karen said.

Neighbors came pouring out of their homes. He saw them all. They saw him.

He stopped. Dropped the gun.

Karen's mother grabbed her and pulled her inside the home. She locked Karen in a bedroom and told her deputies were on their way.

Neighbors said they watched Michael slump against the side of the SUV. He looked calm, they said. Relieved even.

When deputies arrived, Pasco County Sheriff Chris Nocco said, Michael surrendered peacefully.

Michael, 58, was charged with first-degree murder and booked at the Land O'Lakes jail, where he remains without bail. He declined an interview request for this story.

By Friday afternoon, no funeral home had yet been selected for John.

On a map, John's house, the Ortaliz home and Karen's parents' place form a line up the west side of the county. The beige home on Leaning Oak Drive sits in the middle. Karen has spent the days since the shooting packing up her things. She plans to have a garage sale soon. She wants to leave it all behind.

She doesn't know where she'll go. Or what she'll do. Or if she'll ever find love again.

She doubts it.

Alex Orlando can be reached at (727) 869-6247 or [email protected]

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