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21-year-old son arrested in murder of teacher

By Hank Sims Daily Planet staff
Friday January 04, 2002

A 21-year-old Berkeley man was charged on Tuesday with the murder of his mother, Charlotte Ortega, also of Berkeley. 

The Berkeley Police Department arrested Lazarus Ortega at 10 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 30 – eight hours after his mother’s body was found floating in the Bay near the Berkeley Pier. The coroner determined that Charlotte Ortega had been strangled.  

A belt was found around Ortega’s throat when her body was recovered, and her body was bruised, police reports said. 

“Right now, we have just concluded our investigation and he has been charged,” Alameda County Deputy District Attorney Jason Sjoberg said Tuesday. 

Sjoberg said he could not comment on the case until Ortega enters his plea at the Alameda County Superior Court on Jan. 16. 

Charlotte Ortega, who lost an arm and a leg in a car accident in 1971 and was an advocate for the disabled, taught severely mentally and physically challenged children at Hawthorne Elementary School in Oakland. 

Sources close to the family, who asked not to be named, say that Charlotte Ortega adopted Lazarus from a Brazilian orphanage when he was 5 years old. The source said she previously adopted a Brazilian girl from another orphanage. 

At the time of the alleged murder, according to Lazarus Ortega’s statement to police, he was living with his mother in her northeast Berkeley house near Solano Avenue. 

Police reports in the case paint a grim picture of Lazarus as an embittered man with a history of poor relations with his mother.  

According to the reports, Charlotte Ortega’s daughter told police that her mother had once asked her: “Do you think Lazarus is going to kill me?” 

Several people interviewed in the case said that Lazarus would often take his mother’s van without her permission. Charlotte Ortega used the van, along with her wheelchair and prosthetic limbs, to get to work and move around town. 

They say Charlotte Ortega had an alarm installed in the van, and that she kept its remote shut-off switch with her at all times, even when she slept.  

A previous police report said the van was reported stolen July 16, 2001 and was returned the next day by a friend of Lazarus Ortega. 

In his written statement to the police, Lazarus Ortega said shortly before midnight on Dec. 29, he asked his mother, who was behind a closed door in her bedroom, if he could use the telephone.  

Ortega told police that Charlotte Ortega said that he could not, and that afterwards he left the home to walk around the neighborhood. He said that he returned between 4 and 5 a.m., Sunday morning, and went to sleep.  

When he awoke – sometime between noon and 1 p.m. on Sunday – he noticed that his mother’s bedroom door was open and she was not there. He told police that he then drove to Oakland to tell his sister that their mother was missing. 

However, when police questioned Lazarus, they said that he had previously told another officer that he had noticed that his mother was gone after he returned to the house from his walk. 

Shortly after this, according to the report, Lazarus told the police, “There are no holes in my story.” 

Charlotte Ortega’s daughter told police that she confronted her brother and asked him why he hadn’t told her about their mother’s disappearance earlier in the day. 

The daughter reports Lazarus as saying, “I didn’t really trip,” and “You know I don’t really care.” 

One of Charlotte Ortega’s neighbors told the police that around 1 a.m., he heard a car alarm. The alarm was turned off and reactivated six times in five minutes. When the neighbor went to look, the van was driving away. 

The neighbor reported that the van had returned by 2 a.m.  

Charlotte Ortega’s wheelchair and prosthetic devices – which she could not drive without, according to friends – were found in the house. 

On Thursday, friends and colleagues remembered Ortega as a selfless person who decided, from an early age, to dedicate her life to public service. 

“Charlotte devoted her life to her kids and her work,” said Ruth Martinez of Alameda, Ortega’s teaching assistant for the last 13 years. “That was pretty much what she did.” 

“She was a special education teacher for 20 years, and she just loved her students. She told me that ever since she was a little girl, she had wanted to be a teacher.” 

Susan Sperber, principal at Hawthorne Elementary, said that Ortega was an excellent teacher as well as a “really nice person.” 

“She was a loving, caring teacher,” she said. “In the 15 or 16 years I worked with her, she never lost her cool.” 

“This is unfair.” 

In 1993, former Gov. Pete Wilson appointed Ortega to serve on the board of directors of Protection and Advocacy, Inc., a federally-funded non-profit group that advocates for people with disabilities.  

She served on the board for five years, during which, according to the organization, “her interest and understanding of people with mental disabilities was instrumental in the development of expanded services to that population.” 

“I just really enjoyed being with her on the board,” said Edith Brandenburger, a former chairperson. “She was just a wonderful person, and she worked so hard.” 

“She was knowledgeable, principled and hard-working,” said Eddie Ytuarte, a current board member. “I liked her and respected her.” 

Martinez said that her friend was a fun-loving person with a great sense of humor with “a way with words.” She couldn’t give examples of Ortega’s jokes, she said, because she knew she could not do justice to them. 

“She was a lovely lady that something horrible happened to,” she said. “It’s a tragedy and it’s very unfair.” 

Ortega is survived by her daughter, Adriana Ortega of Oakland, and three granddaughters – Deijanique Dove and Chardai and Desiree Ortega.