The Wall: An eccentric old man dies, leaving behind a house full of bizarre keepsakes. There’s a particularly nasty secret in the cellar.
Murder by Consent: This was a serial killer with a unique motive. According to him, his victims had asked to be murdered.
On the Run: A cruel killer is sent to prison for the murder of his wife. One day, he simply walks through an unlocked door and disappears.
The Stone Frog: The ugly stone ornament sat by Leigh Ann’s bedside, a reminder, she said, of her husband – the husband who had disappeared.
Evil Comes to Good Heart: An entire family is butchered in their vacation home. A mild-mannered accountant commits suicide. Are the cases connected?
This is How it Happened: This was a murder that shocked the Cuban community of Florida, a murder played out in broad daylight, in front of a TV crew.
Ten Deadly Minutes: A pickup plows through the plate glass window of a popular diner during lunch hour. A man gets out. He has a gun in his hand.
Murder Most Vile Volume 44
Terri Winchell was the girl who had it all, the kind of girl who classmates vote “most popular,” and “most likely to succeed.” The dark-haired beauty was a senior at Tokay High School in Lodi, California. Here, she delivered Straight-As and excelled at tennis and swimming. Aside from that, Terri was a talented singer, a soloist in both the school choir and at her church. Her crystalline alto voice had even attracted the attention of a local rock band, who’d recruited her as their lead singer. Soon Terri would be performing all over the Stockton-Lodi area. When not thus engaged, she worked a part-time job at a local restaurant. The money she made went directly into her colleague fund. Terri Winchell had big plans for her life. It would have taken a fool to bet against her.
Not that Terri was all work and no play. A girl that attractive, that accomplished, that friendly and outgoing, was always going to draw the attention of the opposite sex. The 17-year-old had more than her share of admirers, but it was a boy named Randy Blythe who eventually won her heart. Randy was 19 years old and a freshman at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, where he was a star player on the basketball team. Like Terri, he was a churchgoer, a good student, and a talented singer. And it was singing that brought them together. Sparks flew when the pair met at a church choir outing. Soon after, they were going steady.
Randy Blythe was the very embodiment of the all-American boy, tall, handsome, and athletic. He was unfailingly polite in his interactions with Terri’s family and yet, somehow, they just couldn’t warm to him. Something about Randy just seemed… off. They hoped they were wrong, but they had the feeling that this relationship was going to leave Terri with a broken heart.
As it turned out, Terri’s family was right. At the time he started dating Terri, Randy was seeing someone else, someone he continued to see even after he and Terri were going steady. The third party in this scenario was a former classmate at Lincoln High School in Stockton, 19-year-old Ricky Ortega. Randy, struggling with his sexuality, had kept the relationship deep under wraps. Now he tried to end it, only to be met by a barrage of abuse and threats. Ricky was staying put. If anyone was going to go, it would have to be Terri Winchell.
An uncomfortable situation now developed, with Ortega insinuating himself into Randy and Terri’s circle. Terri, oblivious to her boyfriend’s secret gay liaison, could not understand why Ricky was always so mean to her, always needling her and making unkind comments. Being the person she was, Terri rode out the unpleasantness without responding. Maybe Ricky would come around one day. Maybe once he got to know her, he’d see that she wasn’t a bad person.
But what Terri was seeing was just a sliver of Ricky’s resentment towards her. To him, Terri was an imposter, an intruder coming between him and the man he loved. He wanted her gone and in late 1980, started thinking about how to make that happen. For a time, he considered outing Randy. However, he quickly realized that Randy would never forgive him for the betrayal and would likely leave him. That was when he decided on Plan B…murder.
Ricky was under no illusions as he explored this option. Much as he hated Terri, he knew that he could not do the killing himself. But why would he need to when he had an assassin right on his doorstep? His cousin, Michael Morales, was a member of the Little Unity gang. He was a guy you didn’t want to mess with, a drug-addicted gangbanger who would not think twice about dropping the trigger on someone. Perhaps he’d be prepared to do his cousin Ricky a favor.
Michael Morales’s early life had offered no hint of the man he would become. Born into a large churchgoing family, he grew up to be a quiet, respectful boy who delivered newspapers to earn pocket money. But then the terrible teens hit, and Morales went off the rails. He started staying out late, drinking, doing drugs, hanging with the local Latino gangs. He began wearing gang colors and dressing like them, in Pendleton shirts buttoned at the throat and baggy chinos. Michael’s parents tried hard to steer him back onto the straight and narrow, but it was a losing battle. Finally, when the boy was 15, they gave up and threw him out of the house.
The years that followed were a wild ride for Morales. He was on the streets, hanging with his Little Unity brethren, drinking heavily and abusing cocaine, amphetamines, and PCP. He was in and out of prison on any number of petty offenses. He fathered three children. Then, in late-December 1980, came a request from his cousin, a request to get rid of a troublesome Gringa who was interfering in his love life. Morales agreed on the spot.
It was just before 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, January 8, 1981. At the Winchell residence, 17-year-old Terri was heading out the door, bound for a local restaurant where she was to pick up a takeout meal for her mom, Barbara, who was sick in bed. She’d just reached the front door when the phone jangled into life. Terri went to answer it and was surprised at who was on the other end. Ricky Ortega had never spoken a civil word to her in his life.
However, this was a different Ricky. He was subdued and apologetic, saying that he was sorry for how he’d treated her and suggesting that he wanted to make amends. He then asked if she’d go with him to a local shopping center to help him pick out a gift for his new girlfriend. Eager to mend fences, Terri agreed, saying that she had an hour to spare. Ortega thanked her for her kindness and said that he was on his way. A short while later, he pulled up in front of the Winchell residence. In the back was Michael Morales, who Ortega introduced as his cousin. What Terri could never have suspected was that Morales was armed. Hidden under a blanket on the back seat were a claw hammer, a leather belt, and a 7-inch kitchen knife.
The route that Ricky took that night was away from the city limits, through a semi-rural area with grapevines on either side of the road. It was here, with no other traffic in sight, that Morales launched his attack. In a flash, he slipped the belt around Terri’s throat. Then he cinched it tight and started applying pressure, throttling the breath out of her.
In Morales’s mental rehearsal of this moment, Terri had submitted meekly, slumping against the seat as her breath was spent. The reality was quite different. Terri fought hard, thrashing against the restraint until the belt buckle broke and she was free. But that was only a temporary reprieve. Now Morales picked up the hammer and started raining down blows on her head. Terri was screaming for Ricky Ortega to help her. Morales was yelling at him to keep driving. The interior of the car was being spattered with blood. Still Terri struggled, trying desperately to free herself from the grip that Morales had on her hair, ripping out clumps of it from the scalp in the process.
It was a brave but ultimately futile fight. Twenty-three hefty hammer blows landed on Terri Winchell’s skull. Other blows fractured her arms and fingers as she tried to ward off her attacker. By the time Ortega pulled over at the corner of Bender and Peltier Roads, seven miles outside of Lodi, Terri was unconscious and slumped against the passenger door. Morales then got out of the car and looked in on the destruction he’d wrought. “Shame to waste such a good piece of ass,” he commented as he dragged the body from the vehicle. He then told Ortega to “take a drive” and return for him in 15 minutes.
Terri Winchell was dying. Not even the world’s most skilled trauma surgeon could have saved her. But Morales still wasn’t done with violating the young woman he’d only just met. With the car’s brake lights receding into the distance, he dragged Terri face-down across the tarmac into a vineyard. There, he stripped off her lower garments and flipped her onto her back. He then pushed up her bra and sweater and raped her right there in the dirt. When his evil lust was finally sated, he drew his knife and drove it four times into Terri’s heart, making sure that she was dead. Then he walked casually back to the road to await his cousin.
Each of the killers celebrated their kill in his own way that night. For Ortega, it was a sex session with Terri’s boyfriend, Randy Blythe. For Morales, it was a six-pack and a bottle of cheap wine, bought with $11 he’d stolen from Terri’s purse. Meanwhile, the alarm had gone up regarding the young woman’s disappearance. It would not take the police long to zero in on the perpetrators. Terri had called her friend Glenda Chavez while she was waiting for Ortega to pick her up. She’d told Glenda that she was heading to the mall with him.
Ricky Ortega did not hold up well under interrogation. He quickly talked himself into a corner and then cracked and admitted everything. Michael Morales was sleeping off his hangover when the police burst into his apartment. Here, they’d find a wealth of evidence – the broken belt stained with Terri Winchell's blood; a bloody hammer hidden in the kitchen; blood-splattered floor mats from Ricky Ortega’s car dumped in the trash, Terri’s purse and credit card carelessly tossed into a drawer. Michael Morales was arrested on the spot.
Not that Morales seemed too concerned about his predicament. Faced with accusations of murder, he yawned and told the officers that he was tired since he’d been up partying all night. The officers knew exactly what that ‘party’ had entailed. Terri Winchell’s brutalized corpse had been retrieved from the vineyard.
Ricky Ortega and Michael Morales would have separate trials, both in 1983. In Ortega’s case, the verdict was guilty, and the sentence was life in prison with no possibility of parole. Morales was also found guilty. In his case, there were the special circumstances of “lying in wait” and “murder by torture.” The sentence of the court was death by lethal injection. Now began the protracted process of carrying out that sanction.
Putting a man to death is not an easy thing to do in the United States. The appeals process is protracted and can keep a condemned man on death row for years, if not decades. In the case of Michael Morales, there would be numerous legal maneuvers to save his life. In the meantime, Morales found God and transformed himself into a model prisoner. He came close to execution in February 2006, only to be reprieved when two court-appointed anesthesiologists refused to participate in the procedure. Since then, the state of California has declared an indefinite moratorium on capital punishment.
Michael Morales will never feel the sharp end of the executioner’s needle. He will live out his life and may even walk free one day. All it would take is a change in legislation declaring life without parole to be “cruel and unusual punishment.” Such legislation has already been enacted for juvenile offenders. Meanwhile, Terri Winchell’s family has been four decades without their beloved sister and daughter, a young woman whose life had promised so much, only to have it cruelly and viciously snatched away. Mr. Bumble, the put-upon character in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, was right. Sometimes, the law is an ass.
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