Merry? No. A Miserable Christmas: The Covina Massacre

On Christmas eve of 2008, the Ortega family got together for a night of celebration – comforting food, card games, and heartwarming conversations around the fireplace. Joseph and Alicia Ortega had been together for 53 years, and Christmas was their favorite time of year. Seeing their children and grandchildren under one roof was a joy.

Newspaper clipping / Firefighters / Bruce and Sylvia Prado / Joseph and Alicia Ortega.
Source: Facebook

Towards the end of the evening, as they were getting ready to wrap things up, there was a knock on the door. The man standing in the doorway was dressed as Santa Claus and he held a wrapped gift in his hands. A Christmas miracle? They wondered.

Tragically, no. Far from it…

A Full House

80-year-old Joseph and his wife, 70-year-old Alicia Ortega lived in Covina, a relatively quiet community, about 35 km. east of Los Angeles. In the winter of 2008, they invited their five kids – James, Charles, Leticia, Alicia, and Sylvia, along with their children and spouses.

Joseph, Alicia, and their children pose together during an event.
Source: Facebook

In total, around 30 people were present that evening. They had a lovely dinner, after which they scattered around the house. The young kids went off to play video games and the adults gathered around for a game of Texas Hold Em.

“Santa! Santa!”

By about 11:30 p.m., most of the guests were getting ready to go home. They stood near the front door, having last-minute chats before the night officially wrapped up. Suddenly, there was a knock on the door. Eight-year-old Katrina, Leticia’s daughter, was the one to open it.

Santa knocks on the front door.
Photo by urbazon/Getty Images

Katrina’s initial reaction to this surprise Santa was enthusiastic and over-the-moon. “Santa Claus! Santa Claus! Santa Claus!” she jumped up and down. But her cries were quickly drowned out by the bullet he shot at her face.

They Hid Under the Dining Table

As soon as the first shots were fired, screams could be heard all around the house. Most of the adults frantically ran towards the back of the house, grabbed their kids, and took off. Joseph and Alicia Ortega and their three daughters, Alicia, Sylvia, and Leticia, as well as their daughter-in-law, Terrisa, hid under the dining table.

The entire Ortega family poses for a group photo.
Source: Twitter

Sadly, hiding wasn’t the way to go. The surprise guest had a semi-automatic rifle in his hand, and he wasn’t afraid to use it. He began to manically fire bullets throughout the house. Their chances of survival were slim.

They Recognized the Gunman

James Ortego was the second person to be shot after eight-year-old Katrina. Just as James fell to the ground, his brother Charles recognized the gunman and yelled, “It’s Bruce!” before he was also shot and collapsed to the floor.

A photo of Bruce Pardo.
Source: Tumblr

Despite their gunshot wounds, James and Charles both tried to get up and restrain the gunman, but they quickly lost their power. Joseph, Alicia, and their two daughters, Sylvia and Alicia, were also shot. The only child out of the five who survived was Leticia, Katrina’s mom.

His Gift Was a Homemade Flamethrower

As it turns out, the “gift” the gunman Santa was holding at the start of the shooting was a homemade flamethrower. After shooting the family, he doused the entire place in gasoline and set the house on fire. It wasn’t enough to shoot them. He wanted to burn everything to the ground.

The homemade flamethrower Bruce used.
Source: CNN

One of the Ortega’s neighbors called 911 after hearing the first gunshots. Another neighbor called to report the fire. And finally, in absolute hysteria, Leticia, the only surviving daughter, phoned them as well. The recording of her call is absolutely chilling.

It Took 80 Firefighters to Tackle the Blaze

“He’s shooting! He’s shooting!” Leticia screamed into the phone, “My daughter’s been shot! She was shot in the face on the side and she’s bleeding.” As the operator tried to calm her, Leticia bawled and begged for them to send over help as quickly as possible.

Firefighters try to put out the fire at the Ortega family home.
Source: YouTube

“I don’t know who else is alive,” she panicked. “It’s my whole family! There’s 30 people, 25 people…”

When help arrived, they had a monstrous fire to tackle. The blaze was 40 to 50 feet high, and it took about 80 firefighters to extinguish it.

Michael Was the Youngest to Go

Luckily, most of the guests managed to escape, including all of the little children but one – Michael. 17-year-old Michael was upstairs playing video games at the time of the shooting but had tragically died in the fire. Apart from the deceased, three people were wounded that night.

A photo that survived the fire.
Source: Pinterest

Eight-year-old Katrina, who miraculously survived the shot to her face. The bullet only grazed her cheek. She needed to undergo surgery, but she managed to make a full recovery. The other two wounded members were a 16-year-old-girl who was shot in the back and a 20-year-old woman who injured herself after jumping out of the second-story window.

Nine People Died That Night

A total of nine people died that night. And due to the intensity of the blaze, these nine victims could only be identified through dental and medical records. The victims were Joseph and Alicia and four of their five kids – Charles, James, Sylvia, and Alicia, as well as Alicia’s son, Michael, Charles’ wife, Cheri, and James’ wife, Teresa, who all died from the fire.

Newspaper clipping about the Santa massacre.
Source: Pinterest

Upon arrival, authorities immediately began to question the surviving family members, asking who in the world could have done such a horrible thing.

The Manhunt Was On

Most of the survivors recognized the shooter, including Leticia, who said she was certain it was her sister’s ex-husband, Bruce Pardo. Police immediately began the manhunt.

At around the same time, police in Sylmar, a neighborhood about 60 km. from Covina, received a call from a man named Brad Pardo.

Bruce and his wife Sylvia are out for dinner with a friend.
Source: Reddit

Brad had just returned home from a Christmas party to find his brother, Bruce, lying on the floor, dead, in a pool of blood. A bullet hole was found in the ceiling and there was an exit wound at the top of Bruce’s head, suggesting he had placed the rifle in his mouth before pulling the trigger.

Was He Planning on Escaping?

Bruce was found with a 9 mm. gun in his hand, another gun on his lap, and one on the floor beside him. As they searched his room, police also spotted four 13 round capacity handguns, 200 rounds of ammunition, five boxes of ammunition for semi-automatic handguns, and a container of high-octane gas.

A portrait of Bruce Pardo.
Source: Twitter

Despite all the weapons he had on hand, it’s believed that suicide wasn’t Bruce’s original plan. Initially, it was said that he actually planned to fly to Canada because he had a ticket for an Air Canada flight. Later, police discovered that the flight was actually heading from LA to Illinois.

He Wanted to Confuse the Detectives

Bruce Pardo had a friend in Illinois whom he had visited a while earlier, in October 2008. A few days before the massacre, he contacted that same friend, saying he was planning on visiting him. Police believed he may have talked to his friend just to throw off the investigation.

Coroner and police stand outside the home decorated for Christmas.
Photo by Ken Hively/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Maybe Bruce wasn’t planning on flying to Illinois and simply bought a ticket to confuse the investigators. Maybe he hadn’t planned the massacre so far in advance. Or maybe he had wanted to flee but physically couldn’t.

He Suffered Horrible Burns

Bruce didn’t leave the Ortega household unscathed. He suffered both second and third-degree burns from the explosion and his wounds were so bad that some of the Santa Claus costume he had on melted into his skin.

Bruce’s singed Santa costume in his car.
Source: CNN

It could very well be that due to these injuries, he decided he couldn’t travel to Illinois. Realizing what he had done and that he was in too much pain to run away, he committed suicide while his brother was out.

He Was on Something

Police discovered Bruce with $17,000 in cash inside a girdle that was wrapped to his leg. This finding supports the theory that he was going to flee. Whether his plan was Illinois or not, we’ll never know.

Santa is using a flame thrower.
Source: Tumblr

A toxicology report unveiled some more unsettling details. Bruce’s blood and urine tested positive for cocaine, a drug that was definitely used to amp him up to go and massacre the Ortegas. He couldn’t handle his own sick plan, so he drugged himself to muster whatever pitiful guts he had to do it.

His Santa Suit Was Rigged With Gunpowder

Bruce’s rental car was discovered one block away from his brother’s house. Inside the vehicle, the cops found his Santa suit, but it had been rigged with gunpowder so that if anyone tried to touch or move it, the car might explode.

Bruce’s torched car after the explosion.
Source: Facebook

Police called the bomb squad who, then, threw an incendiary device to create an explosion and get rid of the threat for good, or else the car exploded on its own while they were trying to defuse the situation (different sources claim different things).

Who Was Bruce Pardo?

So, who was the evil Santa Claus who scarred the surviving Ortega members for life?

Bruce Pardo led a standard, normal life. He was born on the 23rd of March in 1963 in LA, California. He went to John H. Francis Polytechnic High, graduated, and went on to study at the California state university in Northbridge.

A photo of Bruce Pardo.
Source: Imgur

He worked at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Los Angeles before eventually getting a job as an electrical engineer in II Electronic Systems. On paper, nothing was out of the ordinary. He had no criminal records, and his ex-wife, Sylvia Ortega, had little reason to suspect him.

Bruce Was Very Close to His Daughter

Bruce and Sylvia met in 2004, and the couple married two years later at the start of 2006. Their future was looking super bright at the time. They owned a half a million-dollar home on a quiet, peaceful cul-de-sac in Montrose.

Bruce and his family pose for a photo on Holloween.
Source: Tumblr

Their house was just 15 miles away from a Catholic Church where Bruce would often volunteer as an usher. They also owned a sweet dog and were raising a five-year-old daughter with whom Bruce was apparently extremely close. Sylvia also had two additional kids from a previous marriage, so in total, they had three kids to care for.

Things Went Downhill Real Fast

A year after their marriage, things started going downhill. By the winter of 2007, Sylvia began sleeping in a separate room in the house and spent most of her weekends with her parents. It was as if she wanted nothing more than to escape him.

Sylvia poses for a photo with her son Sal.
Source: Facebook

Eventually, Sylvia filed for divorce and had several reasons for doing so. First, Bruce held on to his money tightly and refused to open a joint account. Second, he refused to care for her two previous children. He also didn’t want any of his money to go to them.

He Lied to Her

The straw that really broke the camel’s back was when Sylvia discovered that Bruce had a child from a previous marriage as well – a boy named Matthew. Bruce never mentioned him, probably because he hadn’t seen him in years and wanted nothing to do with him. Still, it was a complete betrayal of trust, and Sylvia found she couldn’t forgive him.

A photo of Bruce and Sylvia.
Source: Tumblr

Before meeting Sylvia, Bruce was married to a woman named Elena. When their son Matthew was just 13 months old, Elena left him with Bruce at home and went off to do some grocery shopping. Somehow, Matthew ended up in the pool.

Matthew Suffered Severe Brain Damage

Bruce found his baby boy face down in the water, unconscious. When Elena returned home, she saw Bruce standing in the living room, frozen, holding Matthew in his arms. Elena immediately rushed Matthew to the hospital where they airlifted him to the kids’ hospital in LA.

A young boy rests in a hospital bed.
Photo by Krit of Studio OMG/Getty Images

Unfortunately, Matthew was left with severe brain damage and spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair, needing constant help and care. A few months after the accident, they split. And Bruce began acting as if his former wife and their child never existed.

He Wiped Away His Previous Life

Bruce cut off all ties and wouldn’t spend any of his money on his son’s care. Ultimately, Matthew’s treatments within the first year ended up reaching $340,000, so Elena sued Bruce for ditching her with all the bills.

A close-up photo of Bruce.
Source: Tumblr

She was awarded his $100,000 home insurance and a trust was set up for their boy. But it was a meager amount – just $240 per month for the rest of Matthew’s life. After the settlement, Bruce never talked to Elena or Matthew again.

Bruce Had Stolen From Their Savings

Bruce’s mom maintained regular contact with Elena and her grandson. In fact, she was the only one who told Sylvia about Bruce’s past family. Upon hearing about his former life, Sylvia freaked out and filed court papers asking for $3,166 in monthly spousal support.

LA County firefighters shore up the burned home of the Ortega family.
Photo by Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Sylvia also argued that Bruce had eaten up all their savings, from $88,000 to $17,000 in just two months. He had been taking out thousands of dollars and transferring them to his private account. Thankfully, she won the case and was awarded money.

He Was Fired for Billing False Hours

In the summer of 2008, Bruce was fired. He lost his job after his boss discovered he had been billing false hours. Soon, he found himself drowning in debt. He went to court to complain that he had monthly expenses which he couldn’t cover, and a $31,000 debit card debt as well as $2,700 monthly mortgage payments to take care of.

A hand fills out a timesheet.
Photo by courtneyk/Getty Images

To make matters worse, and what REALLY shattered his ego, was that Sylvia seemed to be enjoying life like never before. While he had to compensate his ex-wife and pay up, she barely had any expenses. She was living with her parents, going on vacations, riding around in luxury cars, and doing weekly massages.

Leticia’s Hope

All of Bruce’s anger boiled over until it reached its breaking point which would be remembered for years to come as the Christmas Covina massacre. After the shooting took place, the only surviving daughter, Leticia, opened a blog called Leticia’s Hope where she writes of her experience.

Leticia Yuzefpolsky during a tv interview.
Source: YouTube

Her blog posts touch on the most intimate and painful subjects. “Years After… Tradition Helps Heal,” she wrote in one of them.

While remembering to celebrate life is crucial to our survival, I believe that nothing can fully heal such a traumatic event.

“I Can Only Focus on the Future”

In 2016, Leticia Ortega was invited to the Oprah show where she opened up about her journey forward. “I can’t do anything to change what happened,” she explained; “I can only focus on the future…”

A photo of Leticia Yuzefpolsky.
Source: Facebook

“Enough,” she added, “I’m not going to allow you to continue to consume us with your evilness. You don’t want that anger to live within you day to day and grow, just like it did with this monster.” Her appreciation for life is what keeps pushing her forward.

Who Was Sylvia Ortega\Pardo?

Sylvia, Bruce’s former wife, was 43 years when she was murdered.

Her childhood friend, Roxanne Jauregui sat with The LA Times to reminisce. “We would do everything – dances, school functions, house parties,” she recalled.

A photo of Sylvia and her family.
Source: Leticia’s Hope

According to family members, Sylvia was a hard worker, but she carried a joyful demeanor, even though her life wasn’t easy. She lost the father of two of her kids to a fatal crash. She remained a widow for many years until she met George Ozra, whom she later divorced. After him, she met Bruce.

Who Was Joseph Ortega?

Joseph, also known as “Papa Joe,” was the first of his five siblings to be born in America (the rest were born in Mexico). His parents, Santiago Ortega and Dolores Sandoval had moved to the States in the 1920s from the city of Torreon, although they moved back ten years later.

Joseph and Alicia pose for a photo.
Source: Reddit

Joseph met his future wife, Alicia, while paying a visit to Mexico to see his parents in 1955. It felt like love at first sight, and they moved back to LA together almost immediately. They had their first son, James, shortly after.

Papa Joe Had a Kind Heart

“Papa Joe” as he was often called by his children and grandchildren, loved to collect baseball caps. He wore a new one every other day. “It didn’t matter what kind it was,” said Linda Perez, a family friend; “he’d wear it and be beaming for the rest of the day.”

Photos, Notes, and candles are left outside the Ortega family home.
Source: CNN

Papa Joe was also a huge fan of Mexican singers Vicente Fernandez and Javier Solis. Among his other favorite artists were Frank Sinatra and Glen Miller. Among his favorite hobbies were card games and horseback riding.

Who Was Alicia Ortega?

Once a month, Alicia Ortega would phone her two sisters in Torreon, Mexico. “Hola, hola, how are you?” Alicia would ask. Despite being happy with her life in America, she was always somewhat homesick. Along with Joseph, the two would visit Torreon at least twice a year.

Joseph and Alicia during an event.
Source: Facebook

Born in Torreon in 1938, she was the youngest child in the family. Her parents, Luis Sotomayor Rios and Consuelo Diaz de Sotomayor worked hard to provide for their kids and give them the best possible life they could think of.

Love at First Sight

Alicia was just 17 years old when Joseph Ortega (then 27) spotted her standing in front of her parents’ home. “I’m going to marry her,” he said to himself, according to Alicia’s sister, Consuelo “Chelito” de Dorantes.

Leticia looks over old family photos.
Source: Today

De Dorantes told El Siglo de Torreon newspaper that their encounter was “love at first sight.” Joseph then began to woo the pretty young girl, and after receiving Alicia’s parents’ consent, he took her out to a night of theater and fine dining.

The Most Respectful Family in the Neighborhood

Joseph and Alicia married, moved to Los Angeles, and had five children: James, Charles, Alicia, Sylvia, and Leticia. They also had two dogs, a mutt and a Husky. To make a living, the couple formed their own paint company called Industrial Powder Coating Inc.

A photo of the Ortega family.
Source: Facebook

The family’s neighbor, Mitzie Avery, said that she and her family had joined the Ortegas for previous Christmas Eve festivities. “When you walked into a room, every one of the Ortega kids would get up and give you a kiss and a hug,” she shared. “They were the most respectful family I’d ever known. It all started with Joe and Alice.”

Who Was James Ortega?

At the time of his death, James Ortega was just 52. He was Joseph and Alicia’s eldest child, and he played a huge part in the family’s business, working for years alongside his dad at the family’s paint shop in Baldwin Park.

A woman and her daughter stand outside the burnt Ortega family home.
Source: Reddit

In the 1980s, James opened his own store about a mile away but often joined his brother and father on lunch breaks. Llamas Sotomayor, a family member from Mexico, described James Ortega as being more serious more than his younger brother, Charles, and more of a family man, who along with his wife, Teresa, remained near his immediate family. They had three children.

James Had a Healthy, Competitive Spirit

Joe Diaz, a family friend of the Ortegas since the 1960s, said that what he remembered best about James was his “competitive spirit.” When they were kids, Diaz used to play ball games with James and Charles – baseball, tennis, football.

Police tape off the entrance to the Ortega home.
Source: Tumblr

Once, while competing against James in a football game, Diaz recalled: “I rushed in on him, I was hanging on to his waist for like a good minute… Everyone was laughing. He just wouldn’t go down.”

Diaz’s fondest memory of the whole Ortega family was that: “I knew they loved me.”

Who Was Teresa Ortega?

Teresa Ortega, 51 at the time of her death, was James’ Ortega’s wife. We don’t know much about her except that she lived in a two-story house on Lemon Tree Circle. Her close friends and grieving family refused to talk to the news about her.

Family members embrace at home on Christmas.
Source: YouTube

The one thing they reported was that she was a loving, caring mother of three adult children. Tragically, their three kids lost both of their parents in one night to a maniacal man with a thirst for revenge.

Charles Ortega, 50

Charles Ortega, 50 years old at the time of his death, was a playful guy who often challenge his co-workers to a game of basketball during his job breaks at the family’s paint shop. He would dunk basketballs at an old hoop hanging in the back of the store.

The Ortega family group photo.
Source: Tumblr

He wasn’t particularly good, his friends recalled, but that never stopped him from enjoying the game. “He was very physical for a basketball player, but he couldn’t shoot if you left him open,” family friend Fred Duran recalled.

High School Sweethearts

Charles met his wife, Cheri, when they were in high school. They started out as friends and soon became sweethearts. They married and had five children, who, like Charles, loved playing basketball. The entire family would attend their games.

Mourners stand outside the burnt remains of the Ortega family home.
Source: Tumblr

One of the things that always took him by surprise, Fred Duran said, was that Charles would have lunch nearly every day with his family.

“You usually don’t spend that much time with your dad and brother,” he said, “but these guys were together every day.”

Who Was Cheri Ortega?

Cheri, 45 at the time of her death, was a teacher at Grovecenter Elementary School. On weekends, the family would go on fun, extreme trips, like dirt-bike riding in the desert. “I’m really glad she had that time with her kids because it’s really important,” her friend, Charlene Carbajal, said. “They would do everything together; everywhere they went, the whole family went.”

Fire Fighters remove debris from the Ortega home.
Source: Facebook

Carbajal went to high school with Cheri in La Puente and had stayed in touch ever since. She said that Cheri would often go help out at Charles’ paint shop, but she spent most of her time with her kids. They had a special bond, Carbajal reported.

Who Was Alicia Ortiz?

Alicia Ortiz, just 46 at the time of her death, had three children who spoke fluent Spanish. “She was very strict,” recalled family member Llamas Sotomayor. “They wrote it and read it very well. She educated them very well.”

A photo of Alicia Ortiz
Source: Facebook

Alicia didn’t scold or frighten them, but she was strict about their studies. “She wanted them all to be very good,” Llamas said. Alicia had just recently divorced and lived with her kids in Ontario, about two blocks away from the high school her son Michael attended.

Who Was Michael Ortiz?

Michael Ortiz, just 17 years old when he died, played for the baseball team at his school. “Don’t sit down!” he used to tell his teammates, trying to hype them up, “Get off your butts and play!” He always took the game seriously and wanted his friends to do the same.

A mailman walks away from a home decorated for Christmas.
Source: Tumblr

According to his friends, Michael’s philosophy for life was “always look on the bright side.” He was a senior at Ontario High and was one of the school’s best pitchers, said varsity baseball coach Chris Romero. Michael was also a fantastic student and was thinking about enrolling in Cal State Fullerton.

“He was going to make it,” said his uncle, Benny Medina. “He was going to be somebody.”