After Christmas Eve killings in Covina, grief

Alicia and Joseph Ortega
Alicia and Joseph Ortega were born and married in Torreon, Mexico, according to El Siglo de Torreon, a local newspaper. This photo, published in that paper, shows the couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. They are believed to be among the dead in the Christmas Eve attack at their home in Covina. More photos >>>
(El Siglo de Torreon)

The Ortega home, a tidy, one-story structure at the end of a Covina cul-de-sac, had been at the center of so many family events: pizza nights, poker parties and an annual Christmas Eve party where the large, close-knit family gathered to celebrate the holidays.

On Saturday, it was a place for grief.

Leaning toward the yellow police tape that encircled the ruins of the home, family members wrapped their arms around each other. They gestured at items that had been salvaged and laid on the front lawn: a file cabinet, charred photo albums and singed pictures. They bowed their heads. They wiped away tears.

Holiday massacre: An article in Sunday’s California section said that the home of the Ortega family, nine of whom were believed slain by Bruce Jeffrey Pardo on Christmas Eve, was a single-story structure. The Covina home had two floors. —

Three days earlier, the ex-husband of one of the Ortegas arrived at their holiday celebration dressed as Santa Claus and armed with four semiautomatic weapons and an incendiary device. When he left, nine family members were dead and the house was engulfed in flames.

Members of the Ortega family declined to speak to the media Saturday. But friends and neighbors described them as a family that reveled in togetherness. Whether it was betting on a horse race and splitting the winnings or going en masse to donate blood when a friend’s child was ill, the Ortegas did things together.

“If you were a friend of any of them, you were a friend to all of them,” said Linda Perez, who has known the Ortegas for eight years.

The idyllic togetherness was shattered Wednesday night by Bruce Jeffrey Pardo, who later drove to his brother’s house in Sylmar, booby-trapped his rental car and killed himself.

Covina police Saturday released the names of the nine people they believe perished but who have not been officially identified by the coroner’s office: Pardo’s ex-wife, Sylvia Pardo, 43; her parents, Joseph and Alicia Ortega, 80 and 70 respectively; three of her four siblings, James Ortega, 52, Charles Ortega, 50, and Alicia Ortiz, 46; James’ wife, Teresa Ortega, 51; and Charles’ wife, Cheri Ortega, 45; and Michael Ortiz, 17, Alicia Ortiz’s son.

The slayings left 15 children without one or both parents.

The patriarch and matriarch, known as Papa Joe and Alice, were at the center of the family’s life. Papa Joe wore a different baseball cap almost every day; Alice doted on her two dogs, a mutt and an Alaskan husky.

“She’d always say, ‘Que lindo,’ and would baby talk to them,” said Robert Magcalas, a neighbor who still had on his kitchen table the stocking and Christmas card he was planning to give the Ortegas. “You could tell she really cared for them and was a nice lady.”

Immigrants from Torreon in the north-central Mexican state of Coahuila, the Ortegas bought the Covina house in 1982. Three years ago, they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in Torreon. Photos ran in the El Siglo de Torreon newspaper, with Joseph and Alicia Ortega beaming and surrounded by sons and daughters.

On Saturday, the newspaper reported that the couple married 53 years ago in Torreon and soon after immigrated to the U.S. Javier Garza, editorial director of the newspaper, said Alicia Ortega’s family is well known in the city. The children of Alicia’s sisters “are well-respected businessmen,” Garza said.

Mitzie Avery, who lived next to Charles and Cheri Ortega in West Covina, said that she and her family had joined the Ortega family for previous Christmas Eve celebrations. She remembered them as loving and always considerate.

“When you walked into a room, every one of the Ortega kids would get up and give you a kiss and a hug,” she said. “When you were leaving, they would come up and say goodbye. They were the most respectful family I’d ever known. It all started with Joe and Alice.”

Friend Linda Perez described a family trip last year with 15 Ortegas to the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas.

Papa Joe played blackjack and poker; Alice spent most of her time playing quarter video poker. “She could sit there and play for hours,” Perez said.

Perez said Bruce Pardo stuck out a bit at Ortega get- togethers because he was “quieter than everyone else. But he really wanted to belong. He really embraced the family gatherings.”

Pardo’s mother, Nancy Windsor, 72, still reeling from the events of the last few days, her eyes red-rimmed from crying over the ghastly deaths of her son and those killed Christmas Eve, echoed the sentiment about the family’s welcoming spirit. She said she had spoken over the phone with Sylvia Pardo’s son from a previous marriage, Sal Castillo, in the aftermath of the shooting.

“I will say this to you,” said the sobbing Windsor, who has been living out of a suitcase since last month when her home at Oakridge Mobile Home Park was destroyed in the Sylmar fire. “I will compose myself in a moment.

“It would have been so easy for that family to hate me. And Sal was just so wonderful. He said, ‘We love you, and you’re family.’ I love them so much. And it’s very hard this has happened.”