A military veteran stabbed in the chest trying to save a neighbor’s life three years ago testified Monday that Jerome Mellion is the man he saw brutally kill Wanda Ortiz outside her Plank Road apartment in 2013.
Michael Harris and his wife, Elda, testified they were watching television the night of Jan. 10, 2013, when they heard Ortiz, their 48-year-old upstairs neighbor, frantically yelling “call, call, call” from outside their first-floor apartment.
While Elda Harris called 911, her husband, a private security officer with service in the U.S. Navy and Army, darted outside into the darkness with a flashlight.
“At first, it looked like Ms. Wanda was being hit with fists. Then I saw blood,” Michael Harris said on the opening day of Mellion’s trial before a judge on charges of second-degree murder and attempted second-degree murder. The trial will resume Tuesday.
Mellion, 54, of Baton Rouge, is a former boyfriend of Ortiz.
Harris said he hit Mellion with flashlight in hand, prompting Mellion to turn on him and stab him in the front collar area. Mellion, he said, then turned his attention back to Ortiz.
“He stabbed her a couple more times and then it looked like he slit her throat,” Harris testified while being questioned by prosecutor Mark Pethke.
As Ortiz’s family members gasped in the front row of state District Judge Mike Erwin’s courtroom, Zac Woodring, the lead Baton Rouge police detective on the case, told them that her throat was not slit.
East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Dr. William “Beau” Clark testified, however, that Ortiz was stabbed 33 times. The two stab wounds to her back that lacerated both lungs were the fatal blows, he said, noting that Ortiz essentially drowned in her own blood.
Mellion’s attorney, Benn Hamilton, suggested the numerous stab wounds demonstrated the involvement of “emotional rage” and said if the evidence proves Mellion killed Ortiz, he is guilty of manslaughter at best.
A second-degree murder conviction would carry a mandatory penalty of life in prison. Judges can sentence defendants convicted of manslaughter to up to 40 years behind bars.
A fellow Parish Prison inmate who said he became romantically involved with Mellion behind bars testified Monday that Mellion admitted to him that he stabbed Ortiz and her neighbor.
Ernest Taylor, 31, said Mellion told him Ortiz took $80 from him but would not pay it back, so Mellion decided to “take out” her boyfriend. Mellion, he said, planted a knife in a tree and hatched a plan to kill her boyfriend, but he didn’t show up.
So Mellion waited outside Ortiz’s apartment for her to come home Jan. 10 and confronted her, testified Taylor, who has a pending bank fraud charge.
Taylor said Mellion told him the knife broke during the attacks.
Detective Glynn Averette testified a blood-stained blade and two pools of blood were found at the scene the night of the killing. Elda Harris said she discovered a blue knife handle the next day and called police.
Recently filed court documents indicate Taylor spoke with Woodring and fellow detective Logan Collins this month and said Mellion acknowledged previously dating Ortiz and that he had broken her arm in the past.
Taylor testified Mellion confessed to taking a black bag from Ortiz after the killing and discarding it in an abandoned house.
Police had retrieved an empty backpack found inside the burned-out home in the 2800 block of Calumet Street, less than half a mile from Ortiz’s apartment, Woodring testified. Pieces of mail with Ortiz’s name on them were found on the floor.
Pethke told Erwin that Mellion told a female acquaintance after the incident that he was probably going away for the rest of his life. Mellion admitted to the woman that he stabbed Ortiz because she owed him money, the prosecutor added.
Mellion, who has at least 16 arrests since 1978, was once sentenced to 20 years in prison for climbing through a Baton Rouge woman’s bedroom window in 1989 and raping her at gunpoint in her bed.