Fort Worth

She fell in love with politics. Then voted illegally. A stunning prison sentence followed.

“Mom’s out of jail”

It's not over yet for Rosa Maria Ortega, who is free on bond pending the results of her appeal.
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It's not over yet for Rosa Maria Ortega, who is free on bond pending the results of her appeal.

Oscar Sherman’s American life was coming together.

A blue-collar Texan, the 27-year-old is a second-generation trucker with dreams of creating his own trucking company. At 19, he fell head over heels for a simple, sweet, working-class Hispanic woman 10 years his senior who was working as a waitress at Metro Diner in Oak Cliff.

Sherman kept coming back until she finally returned his gaze and he asked her out. They hit it off fast. A month later something of a Brady Bunch scenario ensued when Ortega and her four kids moved into Sherman’s Dallas home, along with his chronically ill father. Three years ago they all moved to the Tarrant County portion of Grand Prairie, mostly so the kids could enroll in Arlington schools.

Rosa Maria Ortega, born in Monterrey, Mexico, but a U.S. resident and green-card holder for most of her life, was happy.

Her kids, now ages 12 to 16, were happy, too. They had friends, did well in school and as the years passed they got to calling Sherman, “Dad,” and his dad, “Gramps.”

Yet now, just months before Ortega and Sherman were going to be married after nearly nine years together — a fourth proposal at a Dallas Cowboys game sealed the deal — this improbable family has been ripped apart by a conviction critics deem implausible and cruel. Ortega’s obsession with voting without ever understanding, as she claimed, that she was ineligible to do so as a non-citizen led to a voter fraud indictment and a trial by jury in Tarrant County.

She was convicted last month by a Tarrant County jury of 10 women and two men on two felony counts of illegal voting and sentenced to eight years in prison, the stiffest penalty handed down in Texas for voter fraud since at least 2005, according to Texas Attorney General office records.

On Thursday, Ortega, whose conviction is under appeal, was released from Tarrant County Jail on an $11,111 bond, and then was met by a guard who spoke four words she never expected to hear: “You’re free to go.”

In a jailhouse interview with the Star-Telegram, Rosa Ortega said she has lost custody of her children and will likely be deported when her eight-year sentence is up.

Stunning even her attorneys, Immigration and Customs Enforcement unexpectedly dropped her immigration hold, granting her a reprieve from jail while her appeal works its way through the court system, a process that could take up to nine months, said one of her attorneys, Clark Birdsall. Her first stop after being released was to surprise her children: Rene Jr., 16; Angel, 15; Clara, 14; and Gracie, 12.

On Friday, a family reunion of sorts took place at the apartment of her brother, Tony Ortega, 35, who is married with two small children. All of Ortega’s children were there, as was Sherman.

Ortega, though, quickly had to rope reality back into her children’s celebration. Her battle is not over. Appeals are not often won and if she is not granted a new trial, it is expected she will do her time and afterward face deportation.

“They really thought it was over because I was out,” Ortega said of her kids. “I had to let them know it’s not the end of the process. When they knew that it wasn’t over, I just turned around and looked at their faces, it went off again, and it hurts me seeing that.”

They made their mom look like a mass murderer.

Oscar Sherman, talking about the jurors who sentenced Rosa Ortega

Ortega and Sherman met her team of attorneys Friday —Birdsall, Domingo Garcia and immigration law expert Fernando Dubove — to plan for worst- and best-case scenarios.

“Hopefully the good Lord above gives us a new trial or just really gets this whole thing dropped, just give her another chance,” Sherman said.

‘It was a big shock’

Birdsall pinned the unusual severity of Ortega’s sentence on a “Trump effect.”

The case made national headlines and floated a perception that the attorney general’s office and the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, which jointly prosecuted the case, desired to make an example of Ortega as a show of strength to the new administration in the White House. President Donald Trump has suggested that he lost the popular vote — by nearly 3 million votes — because of rampant voter fraud.

The irony is Ortega voted Republican.

“I’m a full Texan. I’m one of those that believe Texas should be its own country, but I’m real disappointed in my state,” Sherman said. “... As we were waiting for the sentence, even the bailiffs were saying they hope she gets probation. Then this happens. What the hell?

“It was a big shock. Everyone was saying probation. She has no priors, never hurt nobody.”

Since the sentencing, her kids moved out of their Grand Prairie home, away from Sherman and their Arlington schools and friends, and moved to North Dallas with their father, Rene Garza Sr., and grandmother.

Sherman was doing his best to remain sane. He drives a truck often for more than 12 hours a day, would rush to visit Ortega in jail, check in on the kids over the phone, feed the dogs, pay the bills and also somehow find time to see his dad, Brent Sherman, at Methodist Dallas Medical Center.

The elder Sherman, 57, suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and a heart condition that some years ago required the installation of a pacemaker. He was admitted into the Intensive Care Unit two days after she was sentenced.

“Mostly he felt like he lost a daughter. I really think he was heartbroken,” Oscar Sherman said. “She dealt with his stuff every day — washed him, fed him, took him to doctor’s appointments. He smoked since he was 16; Rosie got him off cigarettes, got him eating right. He considers her his daughter.”

When Rosa got out of jail, she told Oscar, “I want to visit Dad.”

‘Fox News was on all the time’

Rosa Ortega is more than Brent Sherman’s caregiver. She is also his political protege.

Oscar made the decision for Ortega to stop working so she could care for his father and the kids full time when he was on the road for weeks at a time. When it was just Ortega and Brent at home the TV would always be blaring from Brent’s room.

“Fox News was on all the time,” Sherman said. “That’s all you could talk to him about.”

The more Ortega watched, the more she and Brent Sherman, a red-meat Republican, talked politics. The more she drifted from apolitical to politically engaged. The more she began to align with his beliefs.

Brent Sherman’s influence, plus a period of custodial work and other menial duties at polling stations through a temp agency, fueled Ortega’s desire to take the next step and vote. Living in Dallas County, she applied for a voter registration card more than a decade ago, and received one. With no knowledge of voting laws, or any suspicion she could not vote, she says, she cast a ballot for the first time in 2004.

It’s not for us to determine if she’s going to fill that out or pass it along. State law says if somebody asks for an application they get it.

Stephen Vickers, chief deputy of the Tarrant County Election Administration

The votes that put her in front of a jury were cast for Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election and conservative Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who has his own legal issues and who helped prosecute Ortega.

Said Ortega: “You thought you were doing a good thing for the state and you voted this person because you think he’s a good person. Now you’re shocked because that’s the person prosecuting you, giving you eight years and, as well, deportation.”

‘Maybe they want my vote’

Despite living in Texas for most of her life, Ortega, who obtained only a middle-school education, never sought U.S. citizenship, which would have granted her the right to vote. Her three brothers, two of whom were born in the U.S., are all citizens. Ortega, she said, never thought of herself as being any different, and simply never knew the difference between a citizen and legal resident.

Since 2005, the Texas Attorney General’s office has documented 93 prosecutions (not including Ortega’s) on illegal voting or voter fraud. Eight of the 93 have resulted in people being sentenced to prison.

Her family never discouraged her from voting or gave second thought to her eligibility.

When she, Sherman and the kids moved to Tarrant County, Ortega applied for a new voter registration card.

She checked the box on the application indicating that she is not a citizen. The Tarrant County Election Administration informed her that, as a non-citizen, she is ineligible to vote. Five months later she tried again. Voting applications, she claimed, always arrived in the mail unprompted.

But Stephen Vickers, chief deputy of the Tarrant County Election Administration, said she called and requested another application, and one was sent.

“It’s not for us to determine if she’s going to fill that out or pass it along,” Vickers said. “State law says if somebody asks for an application they get it.”

This time Ortega checked the box indicating she is a citizen. That application raised red flags and on Nov. 6, 2015, she was arrested. Her brother, Jose Ortega, 45, explained why he believes she checked citizen on the second application.

“The voting system sends her another application. ... That would send me a message to tell me, ‘OK, maybe they want me to go vote, maybe they want my vote,’ ” Jose Ortega said.

Birdsall, Ortega’s defense attorney in the trial, thought he was close to a deal with the Texas attorney general’s office to dismiss the case. Ortega would simply need to agree to testify before the state Legislature about issues with the voting process and she would no longer have to worry about serving time in a state penitentiary or being deported.

The jury found she knew exactly what she was doing. The verdict on sentencing speaks to how strongly they felt about it.

State prosecutor Jonathan White

But shortly before the case went to trial in early February, Birdsall said Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson rejected the deal. Court documents show that Ortega was offered probation in August, but she declined because she was worried about being deported.

When the trial was set, Birdsall opted not to take his chances with State District Judge Robb Catalano, whom Birdsall deemed too conservative, to determine the sentence. He left Ortega’s fate in the hands of a jury.

“While they were deliberating I could tell they were thinking about how much time to give her and the message it would send,” said assistant attorney general Jonathan White, who helped prosecute the case. “I don’t think they had any belief she was part of any greater conspiracy or organized fraud. ... The jury found she knew exactly what she was doing. The verdict on sentencing speaks to how strongly they felt about it.”

Birdsall said he believes the jury was motivated to punish her harshly in part because of the surge in illegal voting allegations by Republican politicians echoing President Trump.

“The sentence is outrageous in light of the conduct,” Fort Worth defense attorney Mark Daniel said. “To have a first test case, they should have picked someone with some problems, a borderline outlaw.”

Fort Worth immigration attorney Francisco Hernandez agreed, and said it’s silly for taxpayers to foot the bill to imprison a nonviolent offender with no prior record.

“They thought that making a statement was more important than her life,” Jose Ortega said. “She did what she did. ... She actually did vote, but trying to make a difference for society and herself; trying to make an impression on her kids. All of them will be able to vote.”

Together on Friday night, her children, who did not want to talk on the record, continually hugged their mom as Ortega whispered, “Don’t cry.”

“My oldest (Rene Jr.), he tells me, he doesn’t like this country. It’s sad, he really gets mad,” Ortega said before Sherman interrupted.

“No, he has the same view as I do, you know, I’m disappointed,” Sherman said. “He’s not saying he doesn’t like the U.S. They made their mom look like a mass murderer.”

‘I’m not going anywhere’

Ortega never had much come easy. She dropped out of middle school after her mother, who brought her here and then often traveled between Dallas and Monterrey, was deported.

Ortega worked various low-wage jobs, from waiting tables to bouncing around warehouse jobs. She worked various temp jobs and volunteered at animal shelters, often bringing home dogs in line for euthanasia as foster pets.

I was just living life. I would get up and take the kids to school, go to work and volunteer whenever I could. I just lived a normal life like anybody else.

Rosa Maria Ortega

She met Rene Garza Sr., at a young age and started a family, but he wasn’t ready to settle down, Ortega said, leaving her on her own to raise the kids.

“All my life, I am the only supporter, I am the only person that jumped up and ran for my kids when they hurt themselves, or are sick at school or anything,” Ortega said. “My kids are always my first priority.”

When she met Oscar Sherman, she knew he was much younger than she, but he possessed a sincerity she came to trust.

His first priority genuinely seems to be to make her happy.

They’ve traveled to throughout the lower 48 states in Sherman’s truck, they watch action movies together and don’t miss a Cowboys game. He granted her wish to see George Strait for the first time at AT&T Stadium — “It wasn’t cheap, but she always wanted to see George Strait,” Sherman said. And any time he spies a penguin stuffed animal or figurine or candle on the road, he picks one up — “She loves penguins,” he said.

“He’s been faithful to her this whole time. He’s been there for the kids, so I really don’t have any complaints,” Jose Ortega, Rosa’s brother, said. “The kids have grown to love him and enjoy being around him.”

But the past 14 months of stress and uncertainty since her arrest put a deep strain on the relationship. Rosa Ortega called off the engagement, and with deportation likely, she hasn’t committed to getting married, even though Sherman has promised join her in Mexico.

“She gave me the speech the first night in jail. She said, ‘If I get deported you have to move on,’ ” Sherman said. “I told her I’m not going anywhere.”

Ortega still has a number of relatives, including her mother, living in the business and industrial hub of Monterrey, a mountainous city of 1.1 million people about 300 miles southwest of San Antonio. Sherman said he is preparing passports for himself and Ortega’s four children.

“She’s a great person,” Sherman said. “It’s hard her not being there in bed to talk me to sleep, talking about the kids, or that person or this gossip, talking about our plans.”

Ortega never imagined a life outside of America, or a border separating her from her children. She said she only wanted to participate in the American system, not cheat it or manipulate it.

“I was just living life. I would get up and take the kids to school, go to work and volunteer whenever I could,” Ortega said. “I just lived a normal life like anybody else.”

Staff writer Mitch Mitchell contributed to this report, which contains information from Star-Telegram archives.

Jeff Caplan: 817-390-7705, @Jeff_Caplan