the murders of Jennifer (”Jenny”) Ertman & Elizabeth Pina
Jennifer Ertman and Elizabeth Pena were 14 and 16 years old, respectively. They were friends who attended the same high school in Houston, Texas, Waltrip High School. On June 24, 1993, the girls spent the day together….and then died together.
They were last seen by friends about 11:15 at night, when they left a friend’s apartment to head home, to beat summer curfew at 11:30. They knew they would be late if they took the normal path home, down W. 34th Street to T.C. Jester, both busy streets. They also knew they would have to pass a sexually-oriented business on that route and so decided to take a well-known shortcut down a railroad track and through a city park to Elizabeth’s neighborhood.
While Jenny and Elizabeth were living the last few hours of their lives, Peter Cantu, Efrain Perez, Derrick Sean O’Brien, Joe Medellin and Joe’s 14 year old brother were initiating a new member, Raul Villareal, into their gang, known as the Black and Whites. Raul was an acquaintance of Efrain and was not known to the other gang members. They had spent the evening drinking beer and then “jumping in” Raul. This means that the new member was required to fight every member of the gang until he passed out and then he would be accepted as a member. Testimony showed that Raul lasted through three of the members before briefly losing consciousness.
The gang continued drinking and ‘shooting the breeze’ for some time and then decided to leave. Two brothers who had been with them but testified that they were not in the gang left first and passed Jenny and Elizabeth, who were unknowingly walking towards their deaths. When Peter Cantu saw Jenny and Elizabeth, he thought it was a man and a woman and told the other gang members that he wanted to jump him and beat him up. He was frustrated that he had been the one who was unable to fight Raul.
The gang members ran and grabbed Elizabeth and pulled her down the incline, off of the tracks. Testimony showed that Jenny had gotten free and could have run away but returned to Elizabeth when she cried out for Jenny to help her.
For the next hour or so, these beautiful, innocent young girls were subjected to the most brutal gang rapes that most of the investigating officers had ever encountered. The confessions of the gang members that were used at trial indicated that there was never less than 2 men on each of the girls at any one time and that the girls were repeatedly raped orally, anally and vaginally for the entire hour. One of the gang members later said during the brag session that by the time he got to one of the girls, “she was loose and sloppy.” One of the boys boasted of having ‘virgin blood’ on him.
The 14-year-old juvenile later testified that he had gone back and forth between his brother and Peter Cantu since they were the only ones there that he really knew and kept urging them to leave. He said he was told repeatedly by Peter Cantu to “get some”. He raped Jennifer and was later sentenced to 40 years for aggravated sexual assault, which was the maximum sentence for a juvenile.
When the rapes finally ended, the horror was not over. The gang members took Jenny and Elizabeth from the clearing into a wooded area, leaving the juvenile behind, saying he was “too little to watch”. Jenny was strangled with the belt of Sean O’Brien, with two murderers pulling, one on each side, until the belt broke. Part of the belt was left at the murder scene, the rest was found in O’Brien’s home. After the belt broke, the killers used her own shoelaces to finish their job. Medellin later complained that “the bitch wouldn’t die” and that it would have been “easier with a gun”. Elizabeth was also strangled with her shoelaces, after crying and begging the gang members not to kill them; bargaining, offering to give them her phone number so they could get together again.
The medical examiner testified that Elizabeth’s two front teeth were knocked out of her brutalized mouth before she died and that two of Jennifer’s ribs were broken after she had died. Testimony showed that the girls’ bodies were kicked and their necks were stomped on after the strangulations in order to “make sure that they were really dead.”
The next morning, the girls parents began to frantically look for them, paging them on their pagers, calling their friends to see if they knew where they were, to no avail. The families filed missing persons reports with the Houston Police Department and continued to look for the girls on their own. The Ertmans and Penas gathered friends and neighbors to help them pass out a huge stack of fliers with the girls’ pictures all over the Houston area, even giving them to newspaper vendors on the roadside.
Four days after the girls disappeared, a person identifying himself as ‘Gonzalez’ called the Crimestoppers Tips number. He told the call taker that the missing girls’ bodies could be found near T.C. Jester Park at White Oak bayou. The police were sent to the scene and searched the park without finding anything. The police helicopter was flying over the park and this apparently prompted Mr. ‘Gonzalez’ to make a 911 call, directing the search to move to the other side of the bayou. When the police followed this suggestion, they found the badly decaying bodies of Jenny and Elizabeth.
Jennifer Ertman’s dad, Randy Ertman, was about to give an interview regarding the missing girls to a local television reporter when the call came over a cameraman’s police scanner that two bodies had been found. Randy commandeered the news van and went to the scene that was now bustling with police activity. Randy Ertman appeared on the local news that evening, screaming at the police officers who were struggling to hold him back, “Does she have blond hair? Does she have blond hair?!!?” Fortunately, they did manage to keep Randy from entering the woods and seeing his daughter’s brutalized body and that of her friend Elizabeth, but they were unable to escape that fate themselves. I saw hardened, lifelong cops get tears in their eyes when talking about the scene more than a year later. The bodies were very badly decomposed, even for four days in Houston’s brutal summer heat and humidity, particularly in the head, neck and genital areas. The medical examiner later testified that this is how she could be sure as to the horrible brutality of the rapes, beatings and murders.
The break in solving the case came from, of course, the 911 call. It was traced to the home of the brother of one of the men later sentenced to death for these murders. When the police questioned ‘Gonzalez’, he said that he had made the original call at his 16 year-old wife’s urging. She felt sorry for the families and wanted them to be able to put their daughters’ bodies to rest. ‘Gonzalez’ said that his brother was one of the six people involved in killing the girls, and gave police the names of all but one, the new recruit, whom he did not know.
His knowledge of the crimes came from the killers themselves, most of whom came to his home after the murders, bragging and swapping the jewelry they had stolen from the girls.
The juvenile pled guilty to his charge and his sentence will be reviewed when he turns 18, at which time he could be released. The other five were tried for capital murder in Harris County, Texas, convicted and sentenced to death. I attended all five trials with the Ertmans and know too well the awful things that they and the Penas had to hear and see in the course of seeing Justice served for their girls.
Two VERY important things in the criminal justice system have changed as a result of these murders. After the trial of Peter Cantu, Judge Bill Harmon allowed the family members to address the convicted. This had not previously been done in Texas courts and now is done as a matter of routine.
The other change came from the Texas Department of Corrections which instituted a new policy allowing victims’ families the choice and right to view the execution of their perpetrators.
Note: I am still a firm believer that there should be no Death Penalty. I don’t believe the Justice System an whoever runs it should have the choice of who lives, who dies, who gets paroled, who gets life without parole, etc. Only God can make those decisions. The Jury nor the ‘Judge’ should have the right to determine ones fate. And although I think these Murderers that killed these two beautiful girls, should rot to the fullest, I don’t think it’s right that a few innocent men have been wrongfully put to death because of a court ‘error’ and i’m sure there are more innocent people in jail due to wrong judgement. God Knows who’s innocent, whos guilty and they will pay. But until then, let all the evil-doers, simply wait it out in a tiny jail cell for the rest of there pitiful life.