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Kelly Siegler Revisits 1993 Case of Friends Raped, Murdered by “Evil” Pack of Teens
Six teenagers faced the death penalty after confessing to the brutal gang rape and murder of friends 14-year-old Jennifer Ertman and 16-year-old Elizabeth Peña.
Texas prosecutors were faced with a one-of-a-kind case when a group of six teenagers were charged with the brutal rapes and murders of two girls merely walking home.
It happened in the Northwest Houston Heights neighborhood soon after high school friends Jennifer Ertman, 14, and Elizabeth Peña, 16, finished the 1993 school year. On June 24, both attended a mutual friend’s birthday party at an apartment just walking distance from Peña’s home and left together to make curfew.
According to childhood friend Christina Almaraz, Ertman and Peña’s parents began making phone calls the next morning when neither child returned home.
“I didn’t go that night, but I got a call the next morning from Jennifer’s parents, asking if I had heard from her because she hadn’t made it home,” Almaraz told Prosecuting Evil with Kelly Siegler, airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen. “I don’t think I really thought anything of it. Just maybe they fell asleep at the apartment [and] we would hear from her eventually.”
Concerns grew by evening, and the worried parents contacted the Houston Police Department. At the time, law enforcement was overwhelmed with hundreds of homicides in the Houston area that year, delaying a search for Ertman and Peña.
Years later, Prosecuting Evil’s Kelly Siegler visited loved ones to discuss the girls, including Peña’s father, Adolph Peña.
“They [were] friends for two to three years before this happened,” the father told Siegler. “The girls, they just started living.”
What happened to Elizabeth Peña and Jennifer Ertman?
Relatives and friends frantically searched for Ertman and Peña without the aid of law enforcement, but things took a sharp turn when, on June 28, 1993 — four days after the girls vanished — an anonymous male called Crime Stoppers and told them where they could find the girls’ bodies.
So long as the call went to Crime Stoppers, the caller could remain anonymous. But when investigators began searching the wrong area, the caller phoned police to amend his information, and ultimately, his identity was revealed.
The tipster’s information proved accurate, and authorities found the girls’ bodies at T.C. Jester Park, in a wooded area near the railroad tracks between where the birthday party took place and Peña’s home. Both were partially nude and decomposed severely enough that they had to be identified by dental records.
“And then I noticed clothes scattered all over the place, and then I saw a belt that was red… half of it wasn’t there,” Sgt. Ramon Zaragoza of H.P.D.’s Homicide Division told Prosecuting Evil. “It was just so horrific.”
Both victims had been sexually assaulted and strangled.
Police turn their attention toward the tipster
Police soon turned their attention to the once-anonymous informant, who transpired to be Houston Heights resident Joe Cantu. According to Joe, he and his wife were home watching T.V. when his live-in brother, 18-year-old Peter Cantu, came home with a group of male friends on the night of Ertman and Peña’s disappearance.
“These boys went to their home right after committing the murders, and they were bragging,” Prosecutor Marie Munier for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office told Prosecuting Evil.
According to H.P.D. Sgt. Todd Miller, the males had possession of Ertman and Peña’s jewelry “like spoils of war, and they didn’t seem to have any qualms about distributing the ill-gotten gains.”
The group laughed when retelling how they gang raped and strangled the girls. The group included Peter Cantu, described as the leader of their self-styled “Black and White Gang,” Jose Medellin, 18; Jose's brother, Venancio Medellin, 14; Efrain Perez, 17; Derrick Sean O’Brien, 18; and Raul Villarreal, 17.
Andy Kahan, victim advocate for Houston’s Mayor’s Office, said the group had been “initiating” Villarreal into the gang on the night of the murders, which included physical beating and name-calling. It was then that Ertman and Peña walked by while on their way home.
A pair of brothers was also present, but they took off when the attack on the girls began, though they never alerted authorities, according to Kahan.
“I was pretty shocked that there were that many people involved, and nobody stepped up and tried to stop it,” said Sgt. Miller. “It blew my mind.”
The Arrests of Six Suspects
Law enforcement arrived at the suspects’ homes simultaneously on June 29, 1993, squashing any opportunity for them to alert one another. At O’Brien’s house — just walking distance from the crime scene — police located a torn red belt matching the partial one found near the bodies.
Peter Cantu, Jose Medellin, Perez, O’Brien, and Villarreal were charged as adults with capital murder, while Venancio Medellin (who was 14 years of age) was charged as a juvenile.
“Trying to get information about any kind of crime, much less a capital murder from a gang member and asking them to talk on another gang member, is pretty much impossible,” said Kelly Siegler. “They know if they talk, that labels them for the rest of their life, and that’s more important to them than anything we can do to them.”
Piece by piece, investigators learned from the young men about what prosecutor Munier called “a raping frenzy,” beginning when the group first approached and abducted Peña.
Ertman had a chance to run but returned in an attempt to save her friend, per the statements.
The suspects confessed to taking turns raping the victims, according to their collective and “chilling” statements. At one point, Villarreal helped hold one of the girls down while O’Brien strangled one with his red belt. After the belt broke, the suspects resorted to a handkerchief and a shoelace.
“It’s devastating to me,” Adolph Peña told Kelly Siegler. “Why would anybody that’s not evil do something like that to a small child? You have to be evil.”
The trials of five out of six suspects
Except for the 14-year-old suspect, Venancio Medellin, each one faced the death penalty. The elected District Attorney at the time opted to have five separate trials — one for each suspect charged as an adult — which required five different judges, according to Kelly Siegler.
Siegler would sit as a prosecutor for the trial of Raul Villarreal, the suspect being initiated into the Black and White Gang.
“We never had to deal with that before,” Siegler told Prosecuting Evil. “The same witnesses over and over again times five, the same cops, the same family, the same medical examiner… this was a first for everybody in all kinds of ways.”
Venancio Medellin pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault and got the maximum he could as a juvenile: 40 years in prison. As part of his deal with prosecutors, he was required to testify against the others.
Of the five suspects to be tried as adults, Peter Cantu — described as the gang leader — faced trial beginning January 31, 1994 — six months after Ertman and Peña’s murders. The trials gained significant media attention, and Andy Kahan called the court “a circus-like atmosphere.”
The brothers who’d fled soon after the group turned their focus toward the victims and Peter Cantu’s brother, Joe Cantu, were among the witnesses to take the stand. At trial, jurors got to see the crime scene photos.
“I’d never seen photos that disturbing,” prosecutor Marie Munier tearfully told Prosecuting Evil. “I remember seeing them in my sleep.”
On February 4, 1994 — just four days into the trial — the jury found Peter Cantu guilty of capital murder. Months later, jurors tasked with deciding his punishment unanimously ruled he be put to death for his crimes.
“It takes a little bit off your chest to be able to tell the scumbags what they’ve done to you,” said Adolph Peña regarding his chance to read a victim impact statement in court.
Another Murder Comes to the Surface
Ahead of Derrick O’Brien’s trial, Joe Cantu — the brother of Peter Cantu and the one who’d initially tipped off law enforcement — came forward with new information. He claimed Peter Cantu, O’Brien, and Jose Medellin were responsible for the unsolved rape and murder of a woman named Patricia Lopez, who was found dead six months before Ertman and Peña.
According to Sgt. Todd Miller, the three men “brutally raped, brutally murdered” and “disemboweled” Lopez before leaving her body in a public park.
D.N.A. from the Patricia Lopez crime scene matched to Jose Medellin. O’Brien’s fingerprint was found on a beer can at the scene.
Although O’Brien was never charged with Lopez’s murder, he was found guilty in connection with the murders of Ertman and Peña. However, Lopez’s case was factored in the sentencing phase of the trial, and ultimately, O’Brien was sentenced to die by lethal injection.
It was then decided that Jose Medellin, Raul Villarreal, and Perez would maintain separate trials, though they occurred simultaneously.
According to Prosecuting Evil’s Kelly Siegler, Villarreal was the most challenging to try since he was the one being initiated into the gang on the night of the murder.
“What I said to the jury was, ‘Don’t get caught up in comparing Raul Villarreal to Peter Cantu because Raul Villarreal could have walked away; he could have stopped; he could have not participated,’” said Siegler.
In the end, Medellin, Villarreal, and Perez were all found guilty and sentenced to death.
“Out of all five of the adult defendants, every single one of them was sentenced to death,” said Siegler. “I think it was the only time something like that had happened in the whole country.”
Derrick Sean O’Brien was the first of the convicted to die by lethal injection in July 2006. Two years later, Jose Medellin died by execution, and Peter Cantu was executed in 2010.
“It relieved me a lot to know that these individuals had died for what they did to my daughter,” Adolph Peña told Prosecuting Evil.
Later, the Supreme Court passed a law prohibiting the executions of individuals who committed their crimes when less than 18 years of age. Because of this, Efrain Perez and Raul Villarreal had their death sentences commuted, and both remain behind bars today.
Court records reviewed by Oxygen.com show both men will be eligible for parole in 2029.
Watch all-new episodes of Prosecuting Evil with Kelly Siegler, Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.