A 38-year-old Mountain View man pleaded not guilty Tuesday to the beating death of a Wainaku toddler three years ago.
Hilo Circuit Judge Glenn Hara set trial for Xavier “Pee Wee” Cortez Jr. for 8:30 a.m. June 2. Cortez was charged with second-degree murder in a sealed indictment by a Hilo grand jury Jan. 22 for the slaying of 19-month-old Pomaikai K. Ferreira.
Deputy Prosecutor Joseph Lee estimated the trial would last “at least four to five weeks.”
On Jan. 2, 2011, police received a report that the girl had been taken to Hilo Medical Center and was experiencing difficulties breathing. She was transferred by air ambulance to The Queen’s Medical Center on Oahu, where she died Jan. 9, 2011.
The medical examiner who performed the autopsy on Ferreira ruled the death a homicide after finding evidence of repetitive abusive head trauma.
Cortez, who then lived in Riverside Apartments at 333 Ohai St. with the girl’s mother, was initially arrested on the day of the incident on suspicion of first-degree assault. He was later released pending further investigation.
The girl’s mother, 20-year-old Sommer Ferreira, died Sept. 20, 2011, under what County Prosecutor Mitch Roth described Tuesday as “suspicious circumstances.” He declined to elaborate on what those circumstances are, but said there is an open investigation into her death.
Roth said that Cortez, a former professional boxer, “is a suspect” in that case, as well. No charges have been filed, to date.
Police said they received a tip leading to the arrest of Cortez, who was apprehended without incident Tuesday morning at a home in the Livingston subdivision in Mountain View.
The bench warrant authorizing Cortez’s arrest was a no-bail warrant, and Cortez’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Jeff Ng, asked Hara to “consider setting bail in this matter.”
Lee requested that the judge maintain bail or set it at $1 million.
“The defendant does have the resources, does have the ability to leave the jurisdiction. He has family throughout Southern California (and) in the Las Vegas area,” he told the judge. “The charge here is murder in the second degree. If convicted of that, and if the jury does find extending circumstances to be prevalent here — in that the alleged victim is a child — the defendant may be subject to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.”
Lee also said that Cortez has “a prior conviction in the state of Nevada for child neglect involving children, very young.”
Hara set bail at $1 million. He also asked several questions of Cortez, who replied with a soft “yes, your Honor” to each query.
Afterward, Lee said the indictment was sealed by Hara because police and prosecutors “were afraid that once it became public, he would flee the jurisdiction, and he could do that.”
In addition to the Las Vegas conviction, court records indicate that Cortez has at least six misdemeanor convictions in Hawaii, including one for domestic abuse on Sept. 27, 2010.
He was sentenced by Hara to six months in jail, with all but 30 days suspended, and two years probation — which was still in effect when the deaths of both the toddler and her mother took place. The abuse included intentional choking; court records indicate the complainant was Cortez’s sister.
Cortez was originally charged with felony domestic abuse but, in a deal with prosecutors, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges.
Lee said the murder indictment took three years to obtain because this “is not your average, run-of-the-mill case.”
“This case is a little bit different than many others. I’m not gonna go into the facts of it, but it’s not your usual case. It took some time to get some of the evidence, put everything together,” he said.
Roth said he doesn’t “want to try the case in the press.”
“There are things that will come out, I’m sure during the course of the trial and through motions, but we’re not comfortable giving out too many of the facts at this point,” he said.
Asked if there are other possible charges against Cortez, Roth replied: “No comment.”
Neither Roth nor Lee would say what led to the break leading to the indictment, but Roth said that Lee “deserves the credit.”
“He’s worked really hard on this case and put a lot of time and a lot of energy and a lot of thought into this case,” he said.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.