Phoenix police detective Alex Femenia interviews a witness to yet another meth-related murder.
Phoenix police detective Alex Femenia interviews a witness to yet another meth-related murder.
Paul Rubin

Meth Fatalities

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.



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.

That means authorities aren't able to test a suspect's blood for meth or any other substance in a timely manner, if at all. But in many cases, such as in the May 10 execution of Phoenix police officer David Uribe, detectives become aware that methamphetamine is a big piece of the investigative puzzle.

The evidence is overwhelming that the accused cop killers were meth freaks for whom the drug long had been a way of life.

The fact that Maricopa County's murder rate continues to be one of the nation's highest isn't exclusively because of the onslaught of meth use. Alcohol, crack cocaine and other variables also have caused citizens to become instruments of violence. But the impact of methamphetamine in the stark world of homicide cannot be denied.

"It's all about meth," Detective Femenia says. "Yeah, there's alcohol mixed in, and crack cocaine still pops up here and there. And sometimes, someone just gets pissed off at someone else and kills them. But we know what we're seeing in terms of an increase in murders where meth is involved, and it ain't pretty."

One of many cases in which meth allegedly provided the actual motive for murder happened in September 2004, when three young Phoenix residents were shot to death in their condo near Seventh Street and Bethany Home Road.

A year later, last September 13, police arrested 22-year-old Michael Craig Walton on first-degree homicide charges. Prosecutors have alleged that Walton murdered the trio after smoking meth with them, then stole the remaining stash and some money. (The murderer also shot a pit bull in the head, but the dog survived.)

Toxicological testing by the medical examiner confirms that the victims -- two men and a woman -- had used meth shortly before they were murdered.

"This is a perfect example of the violence that goes hand-in-hand with that kind of drug," Phoenix police Detective Tony Morales said shortly after the murders.

New Times' research on death by meth shows that far more murder victims have been dying with methamphetamine in their blood this year than last year. This year's victims have had meth in them more than any other substance, including the traditional standbys alcohol and cocaine.

For example, last May -- the month that Joey Borunda died -- eight of 21 murder victims in Phoenix had meth in them when they died, or almost four in 10 victims. By comparison, only two of Phoenix's 13 murder victims died after ingesting meth in May 2004.

The New Times research suggests that the May 2005 statistics are no aberration.

Of the 115 murders in Phoenix in the first six months of this year, 38 people -- at least one in three victims -- had methamphetamine in them.

That was a distinct increase over the approximately one in four of the murder victims during the first six months of 2004 that had ingested meth, or 26 of 110.

During the first half of this year, 22 of the 115 murder victims died after using cocaine, 26 had been drinking alcohol and 32 had nothing in their systems. (Toxicological tests on 11 of the 115 victims remain unavailable, so overall numbers aren't precise. In some instances, victims had more than one substance in their bodies when they died.)

In other words, methamphetamine is number-one with a bullet when it comes to murder in Phoenix.

And consider this stunning fact:

All but three of the 22 people shot by Phoenix police in 2004 (14 of whom died) had meth in them at the time.

And every one of the eight people shot by the Phoenix cops in the first six months this year (six of whom died) had consumed meth shortly before they were shot.

Those few who engaged in violent clashes with city police and didn't have meth and/or alcohol in their systems had long histories of serious mental illness.

That list includes Douglas Tatar, who murdered police officers Jason Wolfe and Eric White in August 2004 at the Northern Point Apartments in north Phoenix. The 29-year-old Tatar committed suicide at the scene.

The New Times research also shows that people dying of meth-related reasons who haven't been murdered has been rising at a faster pace.

Forty-nine people in Maricopa County died in the first six months of this year of methamphetamine overdoses, meth-related heart attacks and hemorrhages.

That was almost double the number of similar deaths for the same reasons from January through June 2004. It's been a dramatic upswing, even when accounting for Phoenix's 3 percent increase in population from 2004 to 2005.

"Deaths from methamphetamine use have been on a very steady rise for about five years or so," says Norm Wade, Maricopa County's chief toxicologist. "But what's really troubling is, we've been seeing a much higher incidence in the last year or so. I'm not just talking about homicides. A rule of thumb is, if you want to survive for a while and you have any kind of medical condition at all, don't do meth."

Dr. Frank LoVecchio says 95 percent of the people checking into Banner Good Samaritan Regional Hospital's emergency room complaining of shortness of breath and showing signs of agitation and excited speech are on meth.

"It's almost all methamphetamine right now, far more than crack or anything else," says LoVecchio, the medical director of Good Sam's Poison Control Center and an emergency-room doctor at the hospital. "We see meth overdoses on a regular basis, and in all ages and ethnic groups. People will come in denying at first that they've ingested anything, before they may finally own up to it."

Norm Wade also points out that "the coming-down phase," when meth users must endure the crash of crashes, sometimes has proved too much to bear.

"Sometimes suicide apparently seems like the best option to these folks," he says.

Nineteen people in Maricopa County committed suicide under the influence of meth in the first six months of 2005, compared with 13 during the same time period in 2004.

Another 27 people under the influence of meth died in accidents of one sort or another from January through June of this year, an increase of seven over 2004. Those accidents included car and motorcycle wrecks (most of them single-vehicle), bicyclists and pedestrians hit by cars, and drownings.

People on methamphetamine this year have died in hot tubs, in their backyards, in motel rooms, in ditches, and on the toilet.

The oldest person with meth discovered postmortem in his system was a 66-year-old Phoenix man who succumbed in his backyard.

The youngest was a 14-year-old Phoenix boy who also died at his home.

Other recent typical examples of death by meth:

• A 15-year-old Mesa girl under methamphetamine intoxication after attending a party.

• A 54-year-old Tolleson farm worker who suffered a cerebral hemorrhage with a load of meth in him.

• A 35-year-old man under the influence of meth who leaned against a metal storage shed electrified by a live wire.

• A 17-year-old Tempe boy who hanged himself in his bathroom while coming down from a dose of meth.

• A 34-year-old woman awaiting a liver transplant who smoked too much meth and suffered a fatal brain aneurysm.

Transients have died of methamphetamine abuse, as have middle-class citizens with decent jobs. Even the occasional person of means has fallen victim to the drug.

Also, if the incidence of meth-related deaths in the first half of 2005 is a fair indicator, Valley Latinos are embracing the drug in numbers not seen before.

Thirty-four of the 38 Phoenix murder victims who died with methamphetamine in their systems through this June were of Latino descent. That's almost nine of every 10 cases.

Beyond ethnic origin, the number of people over the age of 30 dying of meth-related causes has grown.

"I recently signed off on a 63-year-old woman with a heart condition who died with a great deal of methamphetamine in her," county toxicologist Wade says. "And this isn't nearly as uncommon as most people might think."

Wade says he and his peers have identified an increasing number of older people whose bodies haven't been able to withstand the onslaught of a methamphetamine high -- and low.

Probably most disturbing of the deaths by meth have been the five babies that were stillborn or died moments after their births in the first half of 2005. All turned out to have methamphetamine in their tiny bodies.

The Phoenix mother of Caleb Davis "had a history of drug use and no prenatal care when she reportedly described having cramps at a friend's house and delivered the child stillborn" last March, a medical examiner's report says. Caleb also had an adult-size dose of methamphetamine in his system, which pathologists blamed in part for his death.

A Mesa baby named Joseph Reising lived for just 15 minutes last April after he was born more than three months prematurely. Joseph also had meth in him. Official cause of death: "Complications due to maternal [methamphetamine] use."

And in May, Baby Girl Atkinson was delivered stillborn at a Phoenix hospital after her mother said she hadn't felt the fetus move for more than a day. The official cause of death was "placental abruption," the early separation of a normal placenta from the wall of the uterus. The mother later tested positive for methamphetamine, as did Baby Girl Atkinson.

Two other babies with meth in their bodies, Teresa Aguilar and Baby Nissen, died in Maricopa County during the first six months of this year.

None of the five mothers has yet to be arrested for their roles in their babies' deaths.

It's long past time to toss out the stereotype of the typical methamphetamine user.

You know, the young pimply faced white loser dude who spends his days bouncing off the walls of his single-wide in Apache Junction.

These days, it's clear that all manner of people are indulging in the drug.

Obviously not everyone who gets high on meth turns violent. But Phoenix psychiatrist Jack Potts, who has interviewed hundreds of tweakers incarcerated on criminal charges in the past decade, testified earlier this year that meth "contributes to and causes aggression. It causes an increase in violence in users."

Potts' observations are supported by recent studies, including one at the East Bay Community Recovery Project in Oakland, California.

"[Meth-abusing] participants reported high levels of psychiatric symptoms, particularly depression and attempted suicide," that study concluded, "but also of anxiety and psychotic symptoms. [In addition, participants] also reported high levels of problems controlling anger and violent behavior, with a correspondingly high frequency of assault and weapons charges."

The studies confirm what police in Phoenix and elsewhere have been seeing since meth took over a few years ago as the hard-core drug of choice: People on the drug tend to get violent and fatally stupid when confronted by the cops.

Some clashes between the police and their meth-infused suspects since the start of 2004 have been classic suicide-by-cop scenarios -- where the suspect points a weapon at an officer as if to expedite his own demise.

Yet other clashes have happened by chance, as in March 2004, when convicted felon Marty Baker tried to take a Phoenix cop's gun from him during a routine stop. The cop shot him to death. Afterward, authorities learned that Baker was on meth at the time.

The following month, Phoenix residents Adam Feenaughty and Rejane Burgoyne stepped into a stolen car at a motel off Interstate 17. It so happened that members of a Phoenix police auto-theft task force were watching, and approached the pair.

The driver, Burgoyne, allegedly tried to run down the cops, who fired and killed both men.

Both dead men had meth in them.

Just three days later, Phoenix police responded to a call about a guy inside a home on North 40th Place who was acting crazy. The cops found Daniel Lepker, who threatened them with knives and an ax.

An officer used a Taser on Lepker, to no avail. The suspect then jumped through a neighbor's window wielding the ax. He pointed what two cops later said they'd believed was a semi-automatic pistol at them.

They fired at Lepker, killing him instantly. The suspect's "pistol" later turned out to be a pellet gun. His postmortem turned up a mammoth amount of methamphetamine in his body.

Before the week of April 24, 2004, ended, Phoenix police had killed two more men, Frank Romero and Rudy Chavarria, in separate incidents. They had large amounts of meth in them.

By the end of 2004, two more men lost their lives after consuming methamphetamine and getting into fatal run-ins with cops.

Though the number of Phoenix police-involved shootings has been down this year (thanks in part to the successful deployment of controversial Taser shocks), every such clash through June had been with a suspect on meth.

In early January, meth user Edward Laborin committed suicide on North 59th Drive after he pointed a handgun at police. An officer shot Laborin in the buttocks just before the 24-year-old killed himself.

The most controversial of this year's police shootings of suspects -- the May 3 death of another 24-year-old, Keith Graff, at a north Phoenix complex -- had an almost-certain meth angle.

Graff died of cardiac arrest after police shocked him with Taser guns for a deadly 84 seconds, far longer than the norm. Though toxicological results of Graff's blood, urine and bile samples haven't been released, court records show he'd long been a methamphetamine abuser.

In July 2002, the former U.S. Army soldier admitted to Phoenix police after getting stopped in a stolen truck that he'd just smoked meth. That led to a nine-month jail term for car theft. And in June 2004, police found meth in Graff's possession, and he was facing a prison sentence at the time of his death.

Graff's survivors have filed a wrongful-death civil lawsuit against the Phoenix Police Department in connection with the clash.

Just one week after Graff's death, Phoenix Officer Uribe died after he was shot from close range during a routine stop of a late-model Monte Carlo near the intersection of 35th Avenue and West Cactus Road.

Donnie Delahanty, now facing the death penalty in the murder with co-defendant Chris Wilson, allegedly told several friends in the days preceding the killing that he'd shoot any cop who stopped him in his car.

Delahanty and Wilson weren't arrested for a few days after the senseless slaying, which cast a pall over the community. The pair weren't tested for drugs after their arrests, and any methamphetamine in their systems at the time of the murder would have dissipated by then.

The motive for murder remains a mystery, as the men hadn't done anything overtly wrong that day other than driving with stolen license plates. But they also were admitted tweakers who had been running meth back and forth from Phoenix to Tucson at the time of the shooting.

Delahanty had the following exchange with Detective Jack Ballentine shortly after his arrest:

"You know what you been livin' in, bud?" Ballentine asked the 19-year-old Phoenix man during an intense interview at the downtown police station.

Delahanty shook his head in the negative.

"You been livin' in a tweaker's world. And what's the main thing that happens in that world? What's it called? [How] does everybody get when they're tweaking?"

Delahanty continued to stare blankly at the detective as his mind stretched for the right answer.

Finally, he said, "Have to go to jail?"

"No, not that," Ballentine replied. "It's paranoid. Right?"


"Paranoia runs [you] crazy," the detective continued.

"Yup!" the accused cop killer agreed.

Delahanty and Wilson have pleaded not guilty.

A well-publicized shootout at Sky Harbor International Airport last July 8 also had strong overtones of methamphetamine abuse.

Three Phoenix officers were wounded by gunfire during an extended car chase with 35-year-old Jason Eugene Lee, who was driving a stolen 2004 Ford Mustang. The chase ended after Lee's car tires blew out when he drove over concrete curbs at the airport.

Lee then shot himself to death. He was armed with a .12-gauge shotgun and a .45-caliber handgun.

Toxicological tests revealed that he'd ingested a huge amount of meth (more than any other individual in the New Times mortality database) shortly before the shootout.

Another high-profile case with methamphetamine written all over it was the shooting last August 3 of two law enforcement officers about to take Joseph Spano into custody at a west Phoenix probation office.

Spano shot and seriously wounded a county probation officer and a deputy U.S. marshal during the clash. The 25-year-old later killed himself with his weapon as Phoenix police closed in on him near downtown.

At the time, Spano was on probation after serving more than seven years for armed robbery, and was about to be re-arrested after testing positive for methamphetamine.

Detective Femenia still hasn't gotten the break he needs to arrest anyone in last May's head-bashing murder of Joey Borunda. But he's not done trying.

The detective remains convinced that one or both Ortega brothers, Bear or Psycho, is good for the killing. Femenia quips that the brothers are the deans of the "Ortega Crime Academy," also known as the "Ortega Institute of Meth-Related Criminal Acts."

The detective spoke in August to a few dozen of the Ortegas' worried neighbors at a Block Watch meeting.

"My goal today is to stir things up here," he told the gathering at the nearby Our Lady of Guadalupe monastery. "I know that our victim in this crime isn't a saint. But our philosophy is that every victim deserves our best effort, and that's why I'm here. This was a senseless killing. Someone went into a sudden rage. Meth was involved in this killing."

A woman asked if methamphetamine is worse than the other illegal drugs out there.

"It's worse than anything we've seen," Femenia immediately replied. "Some years ago, it was PCP, Sherm, crack cocaine. Let me tell you, people on meth act extremely unpredictably. It's just as if they're possessed. I mean it -- possessed."

The detective turned to the nun hosting the event, and said somewhat sheepishly, "Excuse me, Sister."

She smiled and told him it was okay.

"I believe in evil," he continued. "I believe that evil exists. And I think that meth can inject a big surge of evil in certain people."

After Femenia concluded, a woman warned him that "the Ortegas have a pretty rough reputation around here with the meth and everything. You have your work cut out for you."

"I know," the detective said.

Baylee Powell contributed to this report.


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