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Craig Smith knew his aunt kept large amounts of cash in her home and killed the elderly woman as part of a plan to steal the money, prosecutors told jurors Wednesday on the first day of Smith’s trial.
After 86-year-old Josephina Ortega revealed the whereabouts of a lockbox containing nearly $100,000, Smith wrapped the woman’s head in plastic bags, sealed them with duct tape and left her to die, Assistant District Attorney Jolanna Macias said in opening statements.
“Craig Smith didn’t just do this on a whim,” Macias said. “It was thought out and planned out and viciously executed.”
Smith’s attorney, Ashley Reymore-Cloud, countered that Ortega’s likely killer is Smith’s co-defendant, Evonne Jaramillo. No evidence directly links Smith to his aunt’s killing, Reymore-Cloud told jurors in opening statements.
Craig Talbert Smith, 59, is charged with first-degree murder and other charges in Ortega’s May 19, 2017, death.
Police found Ortega’s body in the bedroom of her home on Euclid NE – a quiet cul-de-sac near Juan Tabo and Indian School – where the great-grandmother had lived for 45 years and raised four children with her late husband.
Ortega was lying on the floor dressed in pajamas, her hands tied behind her back with zip ties, and multiple plastic bags secured around her head with duct tape.
The circumstances of Ortega’s death shocked family members and neighbors. Ortega’s granddaughter once described her grandmother as “an elderly woman – 90 pounds soaking wet – who was defenseless.”
Smith also faces charges of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, kidnapping, aggravated burglary and tampering in Ortega’s death.
“Craig Smith knew that Josie Ortega kept large amounts of cash in her house,” Macias told jurors. “Josie was forced to tell Craig where that lockbox was in an effort to save her life. That lockbox contained thousands of dollars in cash.”
Security video from a Walmart captured Smith just days before the killing buying zip ties sold exclusively by Walmart, Macias said.
“You are going see evidence that the serial numbers on those zip ties are the same ones that were used to bind Josie’s hands and wrists,” she said.
Jaramillo, Smith’s ex-girlfriend and co-defendant, is a key witness for the prosecution. She pleaded guilty in 2020 to second-degree murder and conspiracy in Ortega’s killing. The plea deal requires Jaramillo to “testify truthfully” in Smith’s trial.
Jaramillo faces from 25 to 35 years in prison, Deputy District Attorney John Duran said. Her sentencing hearing has not been scheduled.
Jaramillo will testify that she was standing outside Ortega’s house during the killing, Macias told jurors. DNA found on a cigarette outside the house matched Jaramillo’s.
“She’s going to tell you that Craig Smith killed Josie in her home and he admitted that he did as much,” Macias said.
Jaramillo also helped Smith count nearly $100,000 taken from Ortega’s home, she said.
Smith’s attorney, Reymore-Cloud, told jurors that evidence links Jaramillo to the scene of Ortega’s killing.
But prosecutors lack evidence linking Smith to the killing “because it doesn’t exist,” she said.
Reymore-Cloud told jurors to be skeptical of Jaramillo’s testimony.
Jaramillo “is an addict, a liar and a gold digger,” Reymore-Cloud told jurors. “That will become very, very evident throughout her testimony.”
Smith was emotionally attached to Ortega, she said.
“Josie Ortega was my client’s aunt,” Reymore-Cloud said. “He lived with her for a while. He was very close to her. He loved her.”
Smith was indicted by a grand jury on April 3, 2018, nearly a year after Ortega’s death. By then, Smith was in custody at the Bernalillo County Metropolitan Detention Center awaiting trial in another homicide – the April 2017 killing of Terry Williams, 56, whose body was found in a smouldering fire near Cedro Peak in the East Mountains.
Williams’ killing led to Smith’s arrest in June 2017 at the Albuquerque Housing Authority, where Smith was employed at the time.
Smith pleaded guilty in August 2021 to second-degree murder and armed robbery in Williams’ death, and faces up to 15 years in prison in that case. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for January.
Jaramillo also pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and conspiracy in Williams’ killing as part of her March 2020 plea deal.