NBC’s ‘Dateline: The Streets of Laredo’ features the story of the sole survivor of convicted serial killer, Juan David Ortiz, who killed four victims in Laredo, Texas, in early September 2018. Erika Peña not only managed to save herself but also provided law enforcement with crucial information that led to Juan’s apprehension within hours of her escape. If you’re curious to learn more about her and how she survived, here’s what we know.
Who is Erika Peña?
Erika Peña, then 26, told relatives that she had known Juan for roughly four months in September 2018. According to her aunt, Marcela Rodriguez, Erika agreed to accompany him to his house in Laredo, Texas, on September 14 after he offered her $500 for sex. She initially described him as “cheerful” and “talkative” — until she mentioned her friend, Melissa Ramirez, who was Juan’s first victim. Her body had been found on September 4 on the shoulder of Jefferies Road in rural Webb County. She had been fatally shot thrice to the head.
Marcela stated her niece asked the killer, “Did you know Melissa was killed?” Juan reportedly got angry with this line of query, and Erika started to feel sick. The aunt added, “She felt a rush run from her feet to her head. She started to get sick. She told him, ‘I need to go outside to vomit.'” The woman showed her presence of mind and convinced Juan to “go for a cruise” in his truck — a move that saved her from probably getting shot and ending up in some rural Webb County like his other victims.
After they got in Juan’s white Dodge pickup, the duo stopped at the Stripes Circle K gas station and convenience store minutes later. Erika again mustered up the courage to bring up Melissa, and Juan reportedly withdrew his Heckler & Koch P2000 .40-caliber pistol — the murder weapon used in all his other killings — and pointed it at her. A police affidavit stated, “Erika tried to leave the vehicle. David (Juan) grabbed her shirt to prevent her from exiting the vehicle. Erika began to scream for help.”
According to court testimony, she removed her shirt, fled the truck, and ran to a nearby Texas Department of Public Safety trooper, who had been filling up his gas tank, all while Juan sped away. Francisco Hernandez learned everything about the suspect — his name and the make and model of his car. He relayed all the information to his colleagues, who arrested Juan hours later at around 2:00 am on September 15 from a nearby vacant property beside a garage by the Ava Hotel. However, he had already killed two more victims by then.
Where is Erika Peña Now?
A lifelong Laredo resident, Erika was known for her smile and outgoing personality. However, the mother of an infant daughter, then 5, refused to be alone after the incident and frequently cried in her sleep. Marcela stated, “Yes, to others, she is a hero, but it doesn’t take away the fact that she was also a victim in this tragedy. She is a survivor, but she is going through serious trauma.” Erika’s brother, Cesar Alberto Villarreal, said, It’s a miracle that she’s alive. She’s going to need counseling and help from professionals. She’s still in shock.”
Another of Juan’s would-be victims, Anna Karen, mentioned Juan was obsessed with Erika. She recounted how they would sit in his truck and smoke, and he would bombard her with questions about Erika — “Does Erika use needles? Does she take showers? Does she have hep C?” During Juan’s November 2022 trial, Erika testified against him, and his defense attorney, Joel Perez, tore into her by bringing up her profession, drug addiction, and previous charges of assaulting an officer and resisting arrest.
According to reports, she was arrested in April 2019 after police were called to her home after a violent confrontation with a family member. The relative alleged Erika had threatened to kill her. Laredo police sources stated Erika resisted arrest and tried to flee by kicking an officer in the leg. However, law enforcement officials managed to subdue her and take her to the Webb County Jail. While Erika’s current whereabouts are not in the public domain, it is presumed the 31-year-old continues to live in Laredo.