‘Neither Family Will Be the Same’

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Celia Ortega was working as a nanny, shepherding a preschooler to ballet class, when she approached Marina Krim. Marina’s two daughters attended ballet and preschool with the girl Celia cared for, and the mother was visibly pregnant with a third child. Celia asked whether Marina needed a nanny. Then she recommended her sister for the job.

That’s how Marina Krim recalls her first interaction with the family of Yoselyn Ortega, the nanny who stabbed to death Krim’s 6-year-old daughter Lucia and 2-year-old son Leo — the boy she had been pregnant with when she met Celia. Yoselyn Ortega is pleading not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect for the 2012 murders. The prosecution seeks a life sentence in prison for Ortega; the defense calls for treatment in a secure psychiatric ward. To build the case for insanity, Ortega’s lawyers are calling on an extended network of family and friends. And in the process, they’re laying bare the inner workings of a long family struggle. After years of supporting (and occasionally lying for) Yoselyn Ortega, her family is now testifying on her behalf — in some cases, even though they don’t want to. “Neither family will be the same,” defense lawyer Valerie Van Leer-Greenberg said in her opening statement.

Born in Santiago de los Caballeros, the second-largest city in the Dominican Republic, Yoselyn Ortega was one of seven children. Her 93-year-old father Rafael Ortega still lives in Santiago; her mother Maria de los Angeles Garcia died in 2001. Among Rafael and Maria’s seven children, only five would live to adulthood (an infant boy and adolescent girl died prematurely from illness). And of the five siblings who survived, one is technically a cousin: Daniel Ortega is the biological son of Rafael’s brother, but since his parents weren’t in a position to raise him, the Ortega-Garcias raised him as their son. Rafael was a grocer. Yoselyn, who is now 55, started working at age 7, fetching cartons of cigarettes and loaves of bread at her father’s store.

Theirs was a family that shared everything: work, housing, child care, meals, gossip, grudges, and even beds. Starting in young adulthood, Yoselyn and her siblings began moving to New York — a process that took place in fits and starts, and involved lots of sisterly cohabitation. At the time of the crime, Yoselyn lived with her sister Delci in West Harlem. The apartment belonged to their sister Miladys, who lived primarily in the Dominican Republic, where she raised Yoselyn’s son Jesus until the boy was 17. Yoselyn visited once or twice a year and sent money. A family that lived next door to the Ortega-Garcias in Santiago also had a unit in the Harlem building, as did a few other friends from the D.R.

According to personal and family accounts, Yoselyn first experienced mental-health issues in 1978, when she was 16: Following her sister’s premature death, Ortega suffered from depression. According to Yoselyn and her siblings, their mother took Yoselyn to a doctor who gave the teenager some kind of medication. Eventually, the depression lifted. Several months after killing the Krim children, Yoselyn told a forensic psychiatrist that she experienced her first auditory hallucinations during that depression — male and female voices that sometimes issued commands. Testifying for the defense, Dr. Karen Rosenbaum said Yoselyn told her the voices often bothered her when she was studying, ordering her to close her books. Sometimes she resisted, sometimes she obeyed. But she successfully completed college in 1985, and moved to New York soon thereafter.

She held a number of jobs in the city. She worked at a doll factory in Queens, where duties included painting the dolls’ eyebrows and placing their eyes inside their heads. (Delci worked there, too.) She worked in a factory that printed books. She shared apartments with a rotating cast of family and friends. When brother Daniel moved to New York, Yoselyn supported him until he landed his first job as a dishwasher.

The closest Yoselyn came to working in child care was when she lived, for three months, with niece Glendalys Garcia in Texas. Glendalys had three children at the time; Yoselyn lived in an extra bedroom and watched her children when she worked. When Marina Krim asked Yoselyn for work references, she offered Glendalys Garcia and another niece, Yaquelin Severino. When Krim emailed her, Severino sent a detailed letter describing the two years Yoselyn cared for her toddler son Ariel. Asked how she met Yoselyn, Severino said she’d been “recommended to us by another nanny.”

At the time, Yaquelin Severino was childless, several family members admitted. Ariel is her husband’s name. (Severino has not been called as a witness, but could be.) ADA Stuart Silberg displayed Severino’s email during father Kevin Krim’s testimony. The letter, Kevin said, “was all lies.” Yaquelin had lied to help Aunt Yoselyn.

The particulars of when, and how, Ortega’s family supported her (or fraudulently propped her up) has been a source of angst in this trial. Kevin and Marina Krim both reached boiling points when Yaquelin Severino and Celia Ortega came up. For the Krims, the Ortega family safety net had achieved only danger. The safety net had been weaponized, even if inadvertently, shooting the most dangerous member of another family into theirs.

ADAs Stuart Silberg and Courtney Groves have openly accused Yoselyn’s siblings and friends of lying under oath about her mental health. Miladys Garcia and Delci Ortega-Garcia both say Yoselyn told them about a “black man” following her in the days before the crime. (The color black can symbolize the Devil in the D.R., according to a Rutgers professor the defense called to testify on cultural issues.) Miladys said Yoselyn complained about a “black man [who] wants to separate us, the black man wants to separate two families” in the months before the crime. Delci said Yoselyn mentioned the black man to her while praying at church. Daniel’s girlfriend Johanna Cruz — who appeared in court against her will and under subpoena — recalled Yoselyn crying nonstop, babbling incoherently, and complaining about “people following her” in September. Also under subpoena: Jennifer Renoso, the niece of one of Yoselyn’s friends, who spent time with her mere hours before the fatal attacks on October 25. Renoso said Ortega’s eyes had darted around the room as she complained about “black shadows” that followed her and talked to her. While Yoselyn was in Renoso’s home, she called her sister Miladys. She didn’t sound like herself, Miladys testified: “It was like I was talking to a demon. She had become something evil.”

But if Yoselyn was obviously unwell, why didn’t anyone stop her? After that phone call, Miladys went on with her day, thinking Yoselyn might call back later, and she’d deal with it then. Johanna Cruz seemed on the verge of tears when she admitted that, after Daniel shrugged off concerns about Yoselyn, she dropped the topic. (“She’s crazy,” the killer’s brother said, leaving it at that.) Delci waved upturned hands in a gesture of bafflement when she asked, “Who would have thought something like this—” She trailed off. “Nobody. Never, ever. Nobody thought nothing like this …”

Everyone testifying to Yoselyn’s hallucinations first mentioned them months after the crime, during conversations with Yoselyn’s lawyer Valerie Van Leer-Greenberg — a fact the prosecution frequently highlights. Even Yoselyn never overtly mentioned the Devil until Dr. Rosenbaum asked her if she “felt cursed.” Later, Yoselyn told Rosenbaum that she recognized the Devil’s voice because it was deeper than the others. When ADAs Silberg and Groves asked Yoselyn’s relatives why they never mentioned hallucinations during NYPD interviews, many said the police never directly asked if Yoselyn heard voices. They hadn’t felt compelled to share more than was required, they said. “I didn’t want to be involved in any of this,” explained Jennifer Renoso, who was 19 at the time of the crime. “I was pregnant, I had my own problems.”

Delci Ortega-Garcia and Miladys Garcia both testified that the last time their sister had seemed this unwell was in 2008, when she’d briefly lived in the Dominican Republic with her son Jesus. During that year, Miladys and Yoselyn had swapped roles — Miladys moved to New York while Yoselyn stayed in Santiago with Jesus. Neighbors and family recalled that Yoselyn seemed depressed and paranoid in Santiago. She would refuse to leave home, and force Jesus to stay inside with her. When Miladys returned, she nursed her sister back to health, opening windows and playing music to bring the old Yoselyn back. Once Yoselyn was healthy, the sisters switched back to their original roles: Miladys caring for Jesus in Santiago, with Yoselyn sending money from New York.

Several months before the killings, though, Yoselyn Ortega began “unraveling” again, Miladys testified. In 2012, 17-year-old Jesus moved to New York to complete high school and live, finally, with his mother. Yoselyn got a new apartment for them in the Bronx. The new apartment was either Yoselyn’s attempt to build a better life for her son, or a response to a fight with Miladys that ended with the elder sister kicking Yoselyn out of the Harlem apartment she still controlled. (Most witnesses reported the former. But two swore to the latter, including Glendalys Garcia, who procured the Bronx apartment.) Either way, Yoselyn and Jesus did not last long in the Bronx. Yoselyn was unhappy during her time there, several family members said. She was prone to crying jags. Mother and son ultimately returned to Harlem, moving back into the four-bedroom apartment that six people called home. (Jesus slept on a couch in a converted living room that he shared with a cousin. Delci shared a bed with her son, sleeping head to toe.) The prosecution argues that some combination of financial stress, workplace grievances, and maternal envy drove the nanny to murder. The defense argues that Yoselyn fell into a psychotic depressive episode that coincided with Jesus’s arrival, culminating in auditory hallucinations that overtook her conscious mind.

Either way, though, Jesus seemed to be the trigger. “She felt overwhelmed when Jesus was in the States,” a friend told Dr. Rosenbaum, according to the doctor’s notes. “Every time she was alone with [the] responsibility of her son, she couldn’t handle it.” During cross-examinations of Ortega’s family, prosecutors have asked whether perhaps Ortega wasn’t equipped for child care — if she went crazy every time she cared for her own child, maybe someone should have objected to her caring for other people’s children?

Arriving in New York, Jesus enrolled in summer classes at a public high school in the Bronx. For extra cash, he dog-sat for the Krims. When the school year started, roughly one month before the crime, Yoselyn Ortega pulled Jesus from public school and enrolled him at a private Catholic high school. Marina Krim said she did this because New York’s Department of Education wanted Jesus to start as a junior instead of a senior. Yoselyn’s siblings said she just liked the Catholic school better than their neighborhood’s public schools; in the D.R., Jesus attended Catholic schools. (During her testimony, Marina Krim bristled at this choice. “What’s wrong with public school?” she asked. “My kids go to public school.”) Yoselyn’s brother Daniel wrote the first check for Jesus’s tuition. He testified that he did this after Yoselyn withdrew in excess of $7,000 from her own bank account and gave it to him in cash, instructing him to “take care of Jesus.” When Daniel asked Yoselyn what she was talking about, “she just stayed quiet.”

When Jesus took the stand on the fourth week of the trial, I found I was holding my breath. “The defense calls Jesus Frias,” Valerie Van Leer-Greenberg announced and the room went silent, but for the creaking of wood benches as we turned to watch his entrance. Jesus had the clean-cut look of an office intern: pressed khaki pants, pink oxford shirt, neat hair. In the years since the crime, Jesus dropped his mother’s surname and switched to his father’s. He finished high school, enrolled at SUNY Albany, and graduated summa cum laude. He got a job in a medical research lab, applying photoluminescent nanodiamonds to cancerous cells. He applied to 20 medical schools, and is waiting to hear back. Polite and amiable, Jesus thanked everyone he interacted with in court — judge, lawyers, bailiff, stenographers, and court security officers in bulletproof vests.

When prompted by the defense, Jesus recalled some childhood events that could indicate a paranoid mother. Yoselyn hated letting Jesus go outside, forcing him to quit the baseball team. She made him hide under the bed when his dog barked, in case the dog was signaling intruders. To calm his mother, Jesus wedged the window shut with the baseball bat he no longer used. But Yoselyn never told her son about hearing voices, Jesus testified. She never mentioned the black man or black shadows. He rarely saw her cry.

On the day of the crime, Yoselyn saw Jesus at breakfast. She texted him to make sure his bus ride to school was okay; it was. After calling Miladys and eating lunch in Jennifer Renoso’s apartment, Yoselyn reported to the Krims’ apartment at 3 p.m. She put Leo in a stroller and went to pick up Lucia from school. She was supposed to take Lucia to ballet class, but instead returned to the apartment. She asked the doorman if Marina was home (she wasn’t), then proceeded upstairs. Ortega maintains that she has no memories of what happened in the apartment, until after the crime was complete.

What was she thinking when she slashed a 2-year-old’s throat, and stabbed a 6-year-old more than 20 times? The defense says Ortega’s “auditory hallucinations won over her and she went into an altered state of consciousness,” a psychotic dissociative episode, according to Dr. Rosenbaum, whose testimony is now entering its fifth day. The nanny was “a ticking time bomb, and on October 25 the bomb went off. Not because she gave into the voices voluntarily, but because she had a dissociative episode at the same time that the voices were screaming at her.”

But the fact that this happened only when Ortega was alone with the children — the children of a woman she griped about immediately after waking up in the hospital — is suspiciously coincidental, the prosecution argues. Signs of premeditation suggest Ortega “planned these murders and executed them at a time she knew she would not be interrupted,” according to the prosecution’s opening statement. And the act itself demonstrates an understanding of consequences: To retrieve knives from the kitchen, then systematically inflict lethal wounds on two children (one of whom seems to have struggled for several minutes) shows knowledge of how death works and how to inflict it. Ortega admits she killed the children. Prosecutors don’t need to prove a motive. They just need to prevent the defense from proving Ortega didn’t understand the morality or consequences of her actions. In a “not guilty by reason of insanity” plea, the burden of proof falls on the defense.

When Delci returned to her apartment that evening, she couldn’t find her sister. She called Yoselyn’s cell phone three times, she testified. Then she noticed her sister’s pocketbook, hanging on the doorknob to Jesus’s room. Inside were keepsake possessions: old family photos, her mother’s jewelry, Jesus’s baby teeth. Later, Delci would discover an envelope that Yoselyn had left for her, containing her insurance cards, legal documents, bank information, and cash. ADA Groves has characterized those packages as “a suicide note,” indicating that Ortega had planned to take drastic, fatal action. During her cross-examination, Delci admitted that, after finding the pocketbook, she stopped trying to call her sister. “Because you knew she wasn’t coming home?” Groves asked. “Sí,” Delci said. “Yes,” echoed the Spanish-English court interpreter.

Yoselyn Ortega watched each of her family members as they walked past her before and after testimony. None seemed willing to meet her gaze. When Jesus Frias walked in and out of court, Ortega twisted in her seat, craned her neck, and bobbed her head as she tried to catch her son’s eye. But Jesus never looked her way.

The Other Family at the Nanny Trial