Antonio Ortega, the Santa Ana man accused of attacking Rick Sharpski with a machete at the Valley Park Apartments in Fountain Valley in 2009 as part of a murder-for-hire plot, took the witness stand Wednesday and testified that the machete believed to have been used in the attack was his, but that he'd loaned it to a friend a month before the attack and never got it back.
Ortega appeared confident, relaxed and occasionally defiant from the moment he was sworn in, standing up rigidly straight, his left hand tucked behind his back military-style as he was placed under oath. Stating his name for the record, he added Ortega quipped that his last name was "just like the highway." He emphatically denied any involvement in the attack, its planning or any agreement, answering "Absolutely not" when asked by his attorney, Derek Bercher.
Ortega, 25, along with Mary Sharpski, 48, and Michael Shores, 40, both of Fountain Valley, are charged with plotting to kill Frank Sharpski, known to friends and family as Rick, in March 2009. As part of the alleged conspiracy with Shores and Sharpski, Ortega is accused of attacking Rick Sharpski with a machete in an alley outside of the couple’s home and leaving him to die the morning of March 3, 2009, fracturing his skull, severing a thumb and fingers, partly severing his nose and causing several other machete wounds.
Ortega told Bercher that Shores had been like a brother to him, and that he still thought of him as such. He told the jury how the two of them had spent several days together every week working on a fantasy novel together, and how he soon came to know the Sharpski family through Shores.
Shores appeared to make notes as Ortega told the jury that he found Shores' relationship with the Sharpskis to be odd at first, but eventually was happy for Shores when he saw how well he got along with the Sharski children. Ortega also said that he had talked to Mary Sharpski directly on a few occasions regarding her frustration with her marriage and with Rick's abuse of her and the children.
Ortega was also asked about his relationship with former girlfriend April Bivens, who testified against him earlier in the trial. He described the relationship as "very rocky," and sighed before describing how he'd tried to end the relationship with her because, he felt, she'd become a different person. Bivens previously testfied that she'd found the machete used in the attack hidden behind a dresser in Ortega's bedroom, but Ortega told the jury that John Camden, a mutual friend of his and Bivens', had the weapon at the time of the attack. He said that Camden lived in a shed surrounded by overgrown brush and trees, and that he'd asked Ortega to borrow the machete about a month before the attack, and that he'd never seen it again after that until it was introduced as evidence at trial.
Ortega also testified that he'd been at the Valley Park Apartments with Shores the night before the attack, walking the common areas of the complex as they often did, and that he'd suffered a nosebleed. Blood found at the scene of the attack was a DNA match for Ortega.
Ortega also talked about a severe cut on one of his fingers, which, Bivens testified, he'd come home with the morning of the attack. Ortega testified that after Biven had left his house for work on the morning of the attack, that he'd cut the finger while sharpening his knife, and that, during the drive to Bivens' home later that day, the cut he reopened, resulting in the blood stains found by police in his car and on the exterior.
Bivens also testified that she'd helped Ortega burn his clothes after the attack, and several pieces of burned cloth were presented as evidence, but Ortega testified that he'd gone out to the back yard the morning of the attack to smoke marijuana, and that he'd started a fire in the fire pit using pieces of old clothing and rags.
Ortega's testimony will resume Thursday morning. Earlier in the day, the jury heard testimony from Ortega's mother, Cynthia Roberts. Roberts testified that on the morning the attack, that she'd woken up around 5:30 a.m., and had seen Ortega's car parked outside the house, and that she'd never seen or heard anyone leaving or returning to the house that morning.
Roberts also testified that Ortega's room looked like "a tornado had hit it" after it was searched by Fountain Valley police, and that the dresser where Bivens reportedly found the machete a few days later had been moved away from the wall about six inches. She also said that she was present on the day Bivens said she'd found the machete, but that she'd never seen Bivens take a machete from the house.
During cross-examination, Roberts told prosecuting attorney Lynda Fernandez that she'd told police that it was in fact her husband who had seen Ortega's car parked outside when he went to get the newspaper on the morning of the attack. She had previously told Bercher that her husband usually picked up the paper just before leaving the house each day at around 7 a.m.
Mary Sharpski's attorney, Joel Garson, also put on his defense during Wednesday's proceedings, calling Sharpski's friend Julie Waring and Waring's daughter, Amanda, who both provided further testimony as to the abusive environment in the Sharpski house.
Julie Waring told the jury that Rick Sharpski once tried to attack her daughter with his fist, and that, while Mary Sharpski was recovering from a massive infection and was fitting with wound vacs after breast reduction surgery, Rick Sharpski had told her to "get ready, I want to [have sex]."
Before the jury had been seated, Superior Court Judge Richard Toohey denied Bercher's motion to call Todd True as a witness for the defense. Bercher had previously planned to call True to testify that Biven had accused him of rape after having consentual sex with him, saying that it was relevant to the case as to her willingness to lie to police at the expense of someone else. Toohey ruled that Bivens had already admitted lying to police when first confronted after the attack on Sharpski, adding that True's testimony would also carry potential fifth amendment ramifications.