Meth Fatalities

Methamphetamine is number-one with a bullet when it comes to violent death in Phoenix

The six members of the Phoenix Police Department's C-32 homicide squad, plus their sergeant, gather at a midtown diner for their usual early lunch.

It's 11 a.m. on May 6, a mild day for Phoenix when the temperature will only reach 81 degrees.

Three of the detectives are on call until the following dawn, which means that any murder within the city's limits between now and then will be theirs to try to solve.

Phoenix police detective Alex Femenia interviews a witness to yet another meth-related murder.
Paul Rubin
Phoenix police detective Alex Femenia interviews a witness to yet another meth-related murder.
Homicide victim Joey Borunda had meth in his body when he died last May 6.
Homicide victim Joey Borunda had meth in his body when he died last May 6.


One of the cops, 27-year veteran Alex Femenia, will be the detective assigned to head the case if someone dies violently, which he is certain will occur.

"It's a Friday in May in Phoenix," says the detective, who looks and sounds much like Dennis Farina of Law & Order fame. "The beer will be cold and the meth will be flowing. Somebody's bound to get whacked. I'd bet on it."

Sure enough, about 5:20 p.m., a pizza deliveryman dials 911 with an emergency: A heavyset Latino is unconscious and bleeding profusely in the middle of North 87th Street, a residential neighborhood in west Phoenix.

The neighborhood's Block Watch coordinator, Fay Russell, runs out of her nearby home to assist the injured man. She instantly recognizes the victim as someone she'd just seen in the front yard of a neighbor's home, horsing around with a boy who lives there.

Russell feels for the man's pulse, which is weak.

"Can you hear me? Can you hear me?" she asks him.

He tries to speak, but it comes out garbled.

Then, according to her account, he takes his last breath and dies.

Joey Borunda, age 34, of Tolleson, is later officially pronounced dead at a hospital.

An autopsy will confirm that Borunda has died of blunt-force trauma to his face after someone took an object -- possibly a lead pipe -- and smashed it into his face.

"This one has meth written all over it," Femenia pronounces, as he and two other detectives scan the crime scene, just north of Thomas Road. "Meth for sure, maybe some Bud Light, and definitely a lot of rage."

The cops identify two suspects before Borunda's substantial pool of blood has even dried.

Their names are Mario and Michael Ortega, two brothers in their early 30s whose mother owns the house where Joey Borunda and 9-year-old Mario Ortega Jr. were fooling around just before Borunda got whacked.

The brothers have well-documented, violent criminal histories, and records indicate they are chronic abusers of methamphetamine and other illegal drugs.

Mario Sr., the elder of the two, is known as "Bear," while his brother answers to the nickname "Psycho."

"The brothers have been a pain in everyone's butt for years," Block Watch leader Russell tells Detective Femenia. "They've always dealt drugs out of their house, and there's violence there all the time. The police have been out here many, many times. They're a blight on our neighborhood."

Bear's girlfriend Cynthia Tovar lives at the 87th Street home with her four children by him, but she later swears to Femenia that she hasn't seen either brother for weeks.

The leads in the murder case, while tantalizing, aren't enough for police to make any arrests. Bear and Psycho, however, are jailed on other charges, including possession of meth.

Femenia gets a crack at the pair after their arrests. In separate interviews, both swear they don't know who killed their longtime pal.

Borunda's family and friends mourn his loss. They say he was a decent man who loved his six children, despite longstanding issues with meth abuse.

But he'd been in trouble with the law for years. In 2002, one of his sisters asked a county judge for leniency after Borunda's felony conviction in a case involving meth and guns.

"I understand my brother is not the angel or possibly the ideal citizen," she wrote. "However, he isn't the hardcore criminal [that] appears on his record. He has been a victim of situations and doesn't know when to step back or say no. . . . He needs to start a new life away from his old friends and environment."

The judge sentenced Joey Borunda to 18 months in prison for misconduct involving weapons. And Borunda never did find that new life after his release.

It comes as no surprise to Alex Femenia that toxicological testing by the county Medical Examiner's Office reveals the presence of a large amount of meth in Borunda's body.

"Seems like every victim we're seeing these days has that crap in them," the detective says when he gets the postmortem report.

Not every victim died with methamphetamine in him or her, according to a New Times computer-assisted analysis of every autopsy performed in Maricopa County since January 2004.

But the statistics confirm what Femenia and his colleagues on the city's down-and-dirty murder beat increasingly have been seeing: The incidence of meth-related deaths in Maricopa County, homicide and otherwise, is on a precipitous rise, with no end in sight.

That said, it's impossible to know exactly how many people have been committing murder while under the influence of meth. For one thing, most homicides in the city of Phoenix remain unsolved, and even those cases that are cracked often don't immediately result in arrests.

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