White House shooting suspect 'textbook case'
IDAHO FALLS, Idaho -- A referee lifted Oscar Ortega's hand high into the clear Rocky Mountain night last summer. Mr. Ortega had not yet been accused of trying to kill the president. He had not yet told the world he was Jesus Christ. Not until the next morning would all the blows to his body make him urinate blood.
That July night in Pocatello, at the rodeo grounds, beneath nothing but the dry Western sky, with 2,000 people watching in the stands and Ken Shamrock, an icon of the mixed martial arts Mr. Ortega practiced so passionately, impressed at ringside, the lazy kid who used to smoke too much dope was lucid and devastating, an undisputed winner for the first time anyone could remember.
It was his first bout, and it would be his last.
The fight ended in the second round, with Mr. Ortega astride his prone opponent in what is called a full mount, pummeling him in the face. Technical knockout, the referee ruled. Mr. Ortega carried his infant son, Israel, in triumph.
Now he may spend the rest of his life in prison. The government says that on Nov. 11, Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez, 21, rode past the Ellipse in Washington, D.C., in a black Honda Accord he bought with money he earned waiting tables at his family's small chain of Mexican restaurants in Idaho Falls. Investigators say he slowed down as he passed the White House and fired an assault rifle from the passenger window. Bullets struck the White House near the residential quarters. The president and Michelle Obama were out of town.
The federal charges accuse Mr. Ortega of attempting to assassinate President Barack Obama. They say anonymous witnesses claim that Mr. Ortega was trying to kill Mr. Obama because he considered him "the Antichrist."
That a religious extremist from a small town in Idaho would try to kill a black Democratic president might seem like cinematic stock. The state has long been stereotyped as violently anti-government and racist. Remember the white supremacists of Hayden Lake? Remember Ruby Ridge? But many people in Idaho Falls say the cliche is empty this time.
Mr. Ortega is a Mexican-American whose family knows the sound of ethnic slurs and worries mostly about its restaurant business, not politics. Idaho Falls residents say that the only thing that could have motivated Mr. Ortega was mental illness -- but that they did not realize the severity of it until it was too late.
"I kind of thought we should sit down and talk with him," said Mr. Ortega's sister, Yesenia Hernandez, "but then he was already gone."
The family reported Mr. Ortega missing on Oct. 31, eight days after he left on what he said was a vacation to Utah; instead he was on a trip to the East Coast. His family never heard from him, and still has not.
Family members and others say that while Mr. Ortega was behaving increasingly strangely -- he read a 45-minute speech at his 21st birthday party in October that veered from supporting marijuana legalization to detailing the threat of secret societies to expressing frustration with U.S. foreign policy in oil-producing countries -- he never seemed violent.
They say he could not have truly wanted to kill the president but that he may have wanted a larger audience. He read his speech to anyone who would listen. In September, Mr. Ortega made a video in which he asked Oprah Winfrey to let him appear on television with her.
"You see, Oprah, there is still so much more that God needs me to express to the world," he says. "It's not just a coincidence that I look like Jesus. I am the modern day Jesus Christ that you all have been waiting for."
Mr. Ortega's behavior and the age at which it appears to have begun suggest that he has "a textbook case" of schizophrenia, said E. Fuller Torrey, a physician who researches the disease and is the founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center in Arlington, Va.
Dr. Torrey recalled working at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C., a psychiatric treatment center in the 1970s and 1980s.
"These folks often end up in Washington as what we used to call 'White House cases,' " he said. "A White House case classically is someone who comes to the guard at the White House and says they have a special message for the president, or they try to go over the wall. We've seen dozens. They almost always have paranoid schizophrenia, and they almost always respond to medication."
First Published November 21, 2011 12:00 am