SA family feels let down by prosecutors after 2017 manslaughter case moves to new court

Case against Paul Donaldson moved from 187th District Court to 227th District Court

SAN ANTONIO – A San Antonio family whose loved one was killed by a wrong-way driver in early 2017 has expressed frustration over the handling of the criminal case.

Armando Ortiz, 28, died on Jan. 15, 2017, after the vehicle he was driving was hit by a wrong-way driver on Interstate 35 near Walzem Road.

Paul Donaldson, who has a past DWI conviction in Bexar County and a past conviction in Tarrant County for involuntary manslaughter while driving while intoxicated, remains in the Bexar County Jail awaiting trial.

“We’re approaching the seven-year mark, and honestly, our last hearing felt like we’re back at year two,” said Ortiz’s sister, Naomi Ortiz.

Donaldson, who is accused of driving the wrong way on the interstate for six miles before the fatal collision, had a combination of methamphetamine, the prescription weight loss medicine phentermine and the anti-depressant imipramine in his system at the time of the crash, charging records show.

The manslaughter case is Donaldson’s seventh driving-related criminal offense in Bexar County, records show.

“It’s like a sound no one should ever hear.”

Elena Ortiz said she knew something had happened even before getting the devastating news.

“Mother’s instinct. I woke up in the middle of the morning, went out, felt something,” Armando’s mother Elena Ortiz said.

Just before 7 a.m., she got a call from a San Antonio police officer, who agreed to come to her home.

Elena (left) and Naomi (center) Ortiz speak with KSAT 12. (KSAT)

“She walked into my room and was like, ‘The police are on their way. Something happened with Tito,’” said Naomi Ortiz, remembering that winter morning.

Police arrived at the home, with Armando Ortiz’s ID, and told the family what happened.

“It’s like the world stops. And hearing my mom, it’s like a sound no one should ever hear,” said Naomi Ortiz, who now has a tattoo of her brother on her forearm. “I was numb. I really couldn’t even comprehend what they were telling us.”

“He was always going to be my baby. He was extremely tall, 6′6″ and three-quarters. And even at that, he would still sit on my lap,” said Elena Ortiz. “His hugs, I mean talk about the most gentle, biggest hug you can get.”

Armando Ortiz’s impact on others was fully realized by his family during his memorial service.

Footage shared by his family with KSAT shows a packed room full of mourners as someone plays Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

Naomi Ortiz has a tattoo of her late brother Armando on her forearm. (KSAT)

“I know he’s gone but I still feel him. It feels like it’s just happened,” said Elena Ortiz.

Case reindicted in 2019

Court records show the case against Donaldson was reindicted in September 2019.

Naomi Ortiz told KSAT one of the previous prosecutors assigned to the case made the decision after not liking how the original charge was worded.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought felony cases to a halt in Bexar County, as jury services were repeatedly suspended.

Four of Donaldson’s 11 trial settings occurred during these COVID stoppages, records show.

But earlier this year, the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office signed off on moving the case from 187th District Court to 227th District Court after Donaldson’s defense attorney raised a concern.

The prosecutor assigned to the case, Jason Garrahan, had presided over Donaldson’s 2015 DWI case while serving as judge of County Court 4.

District Attorney Joe Gonzales said his office agreed to the court change to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

“In the big picture it wasn’t a significant delay in terms of going to trial on this case,” said Gonzales, who defended Garrahan’s handling of the situation.

“So he’s one of a handful of judges that I hired back to work as a prosecutor. Until somebody brings it to his attention, it would be impossible for him to realize that this is the very same person that he handled months and even years earlier on a misdemeanor case,” said Gonzales.

A motion to revoke probation in Donaldson’s DWI case was withdrawn in December 2016, allowing him to remain out of jail, weeks before investigators said he killed Armando Ortiz.

The Ortiz family said Garrahan should have read Donaldson’s file more closely after being assigned to the manslaughter case.

Attorneys typically conduct conflict checks when taking on cases.

“We’re just in this hamster wheel of having to relive this same situation month after month after month,” said Naomi Ortiz.

Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales. (KSAT)

Gonzales pushed back on the criticism of his office, stating that prosecutors have announced ready for trial multiple times, only for Donaldson’s defense attorney to request a continuance.

Gonzales said ideally he would like to see a complex death case like this go to trial within two to three years.

“This I’m sure is very frustrating for the family, but it’s unfortunately not a unique situation,” said Gonzales.

Donaldson is scheduled to appear in 227th District Court on Friday.

Gonzales said he is urging prosecutors to try the case late this summer or in the fall, but it will ultimately be up to the judge to decide when to call the case for trial.

About the Authors

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy award-winning photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.

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