Johanna: Facing Forward

Johanna Orozco weaved though the hallways of the downtown Justice Center, following Assistant Prosecutor Pinkey Carr. The 18-year-old had tucked the bandanna she usually wore over the lower half of her face into her purse.

She had graduated from high school on June 6 and now, a week later, she was about to learn her way around a courtroom. As they walked around the 21st floor, Carr pointed out Judge Timothy McGinty's office.

He was assigned Juan Ruiz's case. Carr was delighted. McGinty had been a tough prosecutor and was known as a judge not afraid to dole out steep sentences.

Johanna waved to McGinty's staff and looked at photographs posted on the door showing the gray-haired judge in a suit and running a race in shorts and a tank top.

Johanna, her grandmother and Aunt Hilda followed Carr into a nearby wood-paneled courtroom with its yellowish light. It was uninviting and chilly.

They filed past a judge's bench and the jury box as Carr pointed at each. She placed her hand on the defense table. She told Johanna that the defendant -- she never called him Juan -- would sit there. A deputy would hover close behind.

Carr had Johanna climb into the witness stand, a sturdy box with a chair in the middle that swiveled. Johanna gauged the space that would be between her and Juan if she was forced to testify about the rape and the shooting at the trial, set for Aug. 20.

It didn't seem far enough.

Hilda wondered if Juan would be allowed to talk to Johanna.

"He has the right to apologize," Carr said. But Johanna and her family and friends would all get a chance to talk, too.

On the way out, Carr stopped Johanna outside of the next courtroom. She had her peer into the small rectangular window on the door. McGinty was on the bench in his robe. He had on glasses and was peering over the rims at a person testifying.

"He looks evil," Johanna said, giggling.


It was dark on July 6 when their car passed a towering white cross. The brightly lighted highway beacon signaled they were two hours away from the small Tennessee town where joy and sorrow collided for Johanna. Hilda turned down the seat-bouncing music that flowed from the radio.

When she spoke from the driver's seat, her voice was strained.

"I don't feel right about this," she said. Johanna glanced up from the cell-phone screen that was lively with text messages to friends in Cleveland.

"I feel like I let my brother down bringing you back like this," Hilda said.

Johanna, her aunt and her grandmother, Juanita, hadn't made the trip to Ooltewah since Johanna was shot four months before. The trip to where her parents were buried used to be a ritual made every few months. Johanna detested the grave-sitting expeditions, preferring to visit her friends and cousins she left behind five years ago when she returned to Cleveland after her parents' deaths.

Johanna's parents -- to her -- were not two stones, surrounded by silk flowers. For Johanna, her parents were still a part of her life. She thought about them every day and even wrote to them. Johanna knew they had watched as she marched with her Lincoln-West High School classmates at graduation.

From the stage, as people cheered, she raised her diploma, saluting her parents with it.

"I did it," she told her mother and father. "I kept one promise and I'm still going to college. I hope you're proud and I wish you were here."

When Hilda started to dream about her brother, she knew he was calling her to visit.

After a short night of sleep in a Super 8 motel, the morning fog called them to the cemetery.

Johanna's grandmother went to work, pulling out a chopping knife and hacking away at grass encroaching on her son's resting spot. She removed the sun-faded faux flowers and replaced them with baskets of vibrant yellow and purple silk gladioluses and chrysanthemums.

Johanna spread out a handmade, child-size quilt and kneeled on it, kissing each gravestone, each parent. She curled up, grabbing and stroking the grass surrounding her parents. She rubbed the stone where their names and native flags were engraved.

But soon she grew antsy. She was hungry. She waited in the car to leave.


For Johanna, this was a summer of impatience. The free spirit was roped by schedules she couldn't control.

Doctor visits. Surgeries. Court hearings.

After the excitement of prom and graduation, Johanna grew bored. Sitting in the house, playing on the computer got old.

Too much time alone led to thinking. Thinking led to sadness.

Johanna returned to cosmetology classes. In the rooms filled with mirrors and mannequin heads, she was comfortable. She could bare her face without worry as she concentrated on her scissors techniques.

With the help of county victim advocate Denise Pollard, Johanna landed a part-time summer internship downtown in the county Justice Affairs office, typing and filing. She had wanted to work with other victims. But it was too soon.

When she wasn't at school or work, Johanna was out.

She splashed with her cousins at Huntington Beach and danced wildly at a festival celebrating Puerto Rican heritage.

Some people stared. She danced harder.

Johanna spent a day at the zoo visiting her favorite spot -- Monkey Island. People pointed and whispered when they saw her telltale scarf.

I should start charging $10 for a picture, she announced loudly.

Some people in Johanna's family counseled her, saying she shouldn't be out dancing and having fun in public. People might misjudge how badly she was hurt. Juan might not get the punishment he deserves.

Johanna thought that was bull. Why should she be trapped when she didn't do anything wrong?

Aunt Hilda didn't expect Johanna to be shuttered in the house.

But she saw the mature girl regressing.

Johanna had always been fastidious about schoolwork. She was thoughtful. She often gave advice to her younger cousins and encouraged them to stay on the right path.

Now some days she was silly or forgetful.

Johanna got a small check each month from her father's life insurance, and had gotten Social Security until she graduated because she was an orphan.

One month she forgot to pay the Internet bill. Then she forgot to pay her cell phone bill. She spent her spare cash on white chocolate mocha lattes from Starbucks and cute outfits from Target that made her feel attractive.

On Aug. 2, Johanna was scheduled to have another major surgery. It was the next step toward getting teeth, something she wanted desperately. An oral surgeon was going to cut part of her jawbone, near the joint, to swing it into alignment.

But Johanna didn't get the paperwork filled out in time to get Medicaid to cover the expenses. The oral surgeon canceled the surgery, putting it off for three weeks.

It frustrated her reconstructive surgeon and biggest cheerleader, Dr. Michael Fritz. Johanna had missed an appointment with him, after he rearranged his schedule for her and drove all the way home to grab letters people -- including the governor -- had sent for her.

She's only 18, he reminded himself. She couldn't be expected to always be perfectly put together.

After Johanna's internship ended, she stopped going to cosmetology classes, too. She was sleeping in many days until 1 p.m.

Aunt Hilda, whom she lived with, started lecturing.

Save your money, she told Johanna. Think about the future. Make plans. Keep moving forward.

But something still stood in her way.

Facing Juan.

The closer the trial date got, the more it gave her butterflies.

Johanna was sick of everyone asking her about it. At a bowling fund-raiser for her, television crews scrambled to get an interview. She politely declined to go in front of their cameras.

How do you feel about Juan? they asked. They didn't care about her feelings. They just wanted an interview, she thought. And maybe she didn't really know the answer.


When Johanna got the call on Aug. 10, she was in her pajamas. Assistant Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Pinkey Carr told her Juan was ready to plead guilty.

Johanna rushed home from her best friend's house where she had spent the night.

Earlier in the week there had been a false start. She got a call that Juan was ready to plead, only to hear 30 minutes later that he wanted to talk to his mom first. But today felt urgent.

At home she tore through clothes piles, pulling several outfits on and off. She settled on a gold shirt and a pair of matching sandals. She messed with her hair, now red, black and gold striped.

Denise Pollard, her victim advocate, met the family in the foyer of the Justice Center and took them to an elevator.

Finally they got called to the courtroom. Pollard led them into a room used for jury deliberations. A partially finished puzzle sat on the table. As Johanna's extended family of eight gathered, Carr explained the situation.

Juan and his attorneys didn't want the family or media to be there, Carr said.

He was waffling.

Before they walked into the courtroom, Hilda reminded everyone not to cheer, yell or gloat.

"Let's all be humans," she said.

Johanna straightened up, walking with her covered face held high.

"That's right. Be confident," Hilda said.


Television cameras swung in unison toward Johanna.

Juan was sitting at a table in front of her.

She looked at him.

He lifted his gaze from the table where he sat, locking eyes with her for a moment.

Johanna's emotions swirled.

She flashed back to the last time she saw Juan's eyes. Right before he shot her.

Then she remembered how in love they had been.

Johanna took a seat behind the table where Pinkey Carr stood.

Juan's public defender, Patricia London, asked to move the hearing for another day so Juan's mother could attend. London and another public defender flanked the 17-year-old but his side of the courtroom was empty.

No mother. No father. No sisters or brothers.

Juan's mother, Candida Rodriguez, was at work and said she never received a call to come to court.

Otherwise, she would have been there for her only son.

The boy who had a tumor removed from his brain at just a year old, who was hyper and hard to control, but also peppered her with kisses and hugs. The son she struggled to raise after her divorce while holding down two jobs.

Not that she condoned what he had done.

The 37-year-old could not grasp how her child, who had wanted to be a firefighter or boxer, had done something so horrific. Something in his head must have snapped. Candida didn't visit Juan after the shooting.

She wondered what she could have done -- short of handcuffing him to the kitchen table -- to stop him. And she realized: "He's stupid. But he is my son."

His mother thought he deserved prison, but not 40 years. She was afraid the judge would not be fair because of the publicity. That he would not believe Juan could be sorry.

In court, Carr was getting fired up. Mother or no mother, they would go forward today. Or else the plea deal they offered, cutting Juan's sentence from a possible life term to a maximum of 41 years, was off the table.

Juan whispered with his attorneys.

He would take it.

McGinty made sure Juan understood what he was agreeing to and how much time in prison he could end up serving.

When the judge read the first charge, asking Juan to enter his plea to the charge of rape, the teen said nothing.

Thirty silent seconds passed.

Tears rolled over Juan's proud cheekbones. He wiped them on his collar of his jail jumpsuit. London got him a tissue.

A minute passed.

A whimper escaped from Johanna's throat as she squeezed Aunt Hilda's hand so tight her pink and black painted nails left imprints for hours.

"Guilty." Juan uttered.

He wished to be sentenced right away. To get it over with.

But the judge wanted to wait for more information to be gathered about Juan's life and the crime.

He would sentence Juan on Wednesday, Sept. 19.

Johanna hugged her family as they emptied into the jury room.

But the mood was not joyous.

In court, they had all sat silently, listening to the judge and attorneys.

Next month it would be their turn.


Aunt Hilda had quit her night-shift job; picking up more housecleaning work to pay the bills. On Aug. 31 she ordered a pizza for her kids to eat for dinner. When she went to the pickup window, she froze.

Juan's mother was on the other side of the counter. Hilda didn't know she worked there.

The two women stared.

Please don't look at me like that, Candida pleaded.

Standing there, in the pizza place, the two women talked.

Candida told Hilda she had wanted to call Johanna, to send her flowers, to hug her -- but police had told her to stay away. She also told Hilda she had called Juan's home detention officer before the shooting, telling him she could no longer control her son.

I'm sorry, she told Hilda. She told her she had shunned her son after the shooting.

You're his mother, Hilda said. You need to be there for him. I understand. I'm a mother, too.

The women hugged.


As she perched on her bed, surrounded by stuffed animals, Johanna stared at the lined paper in front of her and tried to concentrate.

Every time she began to scratch out words, she would start to cry.

What was she going to say to Juan?

Some in her family, like her grandfather, Wosbely, wanted Juan to be thrown into prison forever. Juan showed Johanna no mercy. Why should there be mercy for him? And part of her wanted to smack Juan across the face.

But that didn't feel right. She was taught not to hate.

Besides, it made no difference in her life whether Juan got five years or 80.

It wouldn't change what happened.

Johanna realized she needed to face him in her own way.

With a poem.

Many times, she had bared her feelings about losing her parents, about Juan, about her now-scarred face, in many lines of swirled handwriting.

She just needed a few lines more.

She began: Prince Charming it's clear to see that happily ever after was never meant to be ...