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L.A. offers $50,000 reward in fatal Highland Park hit-and-run

Karina Valenzuela, left, next to her sister Lissette Arreola, and other family members attend a Mass for Gloria Ortiz.
Karina Valenzuela, left, next to her sister Lissette Arreola, and other family members attend a Mass for Gloria Ortiz.
(Wally Skalij, Los Angeles Times)

Karina Valenzuela’s mother used to tell her: “Hija, always forgive. Don’t hold hatred in your heart.”

At 57, Gloria Ortiz tried to do just that. When a bus driver left her panting on the curb, she patiently waited for the next bus. When a relative gossiped, she changed the subject. When her husband ran off with his mistress two decades ago, over time she became best friends with the woman.

Last month, as Ortiz was leaving her ex-husband’s home in Highland Park, she stepped off the curb and was killed by a hit-and-run driver. Her family was left with few clues, but they are determined to find the driver.

“We want him to know what he did, what he took from us,” Valenzuela said. “We want him to turn himself in.”

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The city of Los Angeles on Friday announced a $50,000 reward for information leading to a prosecution. Police said the driver, described as a male Latino, was in a black Honda Civic and may have been distracted by his cellphone.

“This family is completely destroyed, but we’re trying to make it better,” Los Angeles police Det. Michael Kaden said.

On Sept. 14, Ortiz was celebrating. She had just been sworn in as a U.S. citizen.

“Every day, she would go to classes and study so much,” Valenzuela said. “She was so happy she had finally reached her goal.”

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That afternoon, Ortiz went to see her ex-husband, Pedro Cortez, and his wife, Maria Cortez, who cooked her friend a dinner of steak with rice and vegetables.

“She sat with us so content, enjoying her food,” Maria said.

The three often spent time together. Ortiz and Maria Cortez cared for each other’s grandchildren and cooked in each other’s kitchens. In recent months, they had spent hours enrolled in citizenship classes, cheering each other on.

Just after 7 p.m., the couple accompanied Ortiz outside. Pedro Cortez was going to drive her home.

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As they entered the crosswalk by her granddaughter’s elementary school, Ortiz was in front — on crutches she had used since suffering a knee injury years ago. Pedro walked behind her, holding their granddaughter’s hand. Maria followed, holding on to another granddaughter.

The path was clear on Avenue 50 at San Marcos Place, Pedro said. But moments later, they saw headlights speeding toward them. Pedro waved at the car, hoping to catch the driver’s attention.

“I yelled at Gloria to stop, to move out of the way,” Pedro said.

He pushed his granddaughters back toward the curb. He was not able to reach Ortiz.

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Two hours later, she was pronounced dead at Huntington Memorial Hospital.

“She tried to walk as fast as she could, but the car still got her,” Pedro Cortez said.

On a recent morning, the family gathered at a church in downtown Los Angeles to pay tribute to Ortiz. As the priest said Mass, her three adult daughters bowed their heads quietly in a front pew.

The daughters have their differences. But they’ve tried their best to keep their mother’s case alive.

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Lissette Arreola, 24, checks in with police regularly to see if they have any leads. Yesenia Ortiz, 37, has passed out fliers in the area near the accident, asking body shops to be on the lookout for a car with damage to the hood or trunk.

Valenzuela, meanwhile, is working to help her daughter, Genesis, who was there when her grandmother was killed. The 6-year-old was very close to Ortiz.

“It’s difficult,” Valenzuela said. “I know my mom would say, ‘Move on. Don’t beat yourself up looking for this person.’”

Still, Valenzuela said, she remains hopeful.

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esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATbermudez


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