The Evidence Room, Episode 18 - The Devil In Them

HOUSTON – Elizabeth Pena and Jennifer Ertman were close friends whose lives were cut short in the summer of 1993. In this episode of ’The Evidence Room,’ we’ll show you how the girls were simply trying to make it home by curfew and had no idea they would cross-paths with members of a neighborhood gang partying near the banks of White Oak Bayou who had just finished initiating a new member.

“It was one of the worst cases of my young homicide career. I think I’d only been in the division maybe eight or nine months when this happened, and it was certainly one of the worst things I’d ever seen,” said Todd Miller, a retired Houston police homicide detective.

Jennifer Ertman and Elizabeth Christine Peña (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

In June of 1993, the girls had been at a friend’s house close to Pena’s home in the Oak Forest area of Houston. The Waltrip High students were getting close to breaking curfew, so they took a shortcut along a set of railroad tracks that spanned White Oak Bayou near TC Jester Park. During their walk, they came across several members of the so-called “Black and White” gang who were drinking beer after initiating a new member, Raul Villarreal, through a violent ritual known as “jumping-in.”

“As (the girls) were trying to get past them one of the defendants, (Jose) Medellin, grabbed one of the girls and that’s when everything started dominoing,” Miller said. “There were a total of six people there, actually more in the very beginning. There were two other guys that whenever everything started and it was obvious that the girls were going to get raped, two of the guys actually left and they said they weren’t down with it. The Roman brothers, and they had they weren’t down with it, and they they left and got out of there. They actually also became valuable witnesses.”

Catch up on previous episodes of ‘The Evidence Room’ here

Court records show the girls were tortured and raped for more than an hour before Peter Cantu ordered the others to kill the girls so they couldn’t identify their attackers. The girls were strangled, and the gang members stomped on their necks.

“They endured as much pain and horrific torture as a person could probably put up with,” said Miller.

The girls’ bodies were found four days later after an anonymous tip was phoned into Houston Crime Stoppers. Miller said it was Cantu’s brother, Joe Cantu, who called in the tip.

“Joe had nothing to do with it. In fact, he became a very valuable witness in the case,” said Miller. “He agreed to meet with us, and actually, he and his wife both met with us. And during that initial conversation, he laid out what had happened as far as he knew, based on what he had heard from the, the suspects, Peter, his brother, and the other two or three guys that had come home with Peter after the after the murder. And both Joe and his wife could see that the guys were covered with blood. They had scratches on them where the girls had fought back, and they also had jewelry that they had taken from the young lady’s jewelry and personal effects they had taken from the young ladies.”

Miller said all six suspects were arrested almost simultaneously as 12 to 15 detectives worked the case around the clock. Peter Cantu, Jose Medellin, Venancio Medellin, Derrick Sean O’Brien, Efrain Perez, and Raul Villarreal were all charged in the case. Miller said several confessed to the murders, including Cantu.

Raul Villarreal, Derrick Sean O’Brien, Peter Cantu, Jose Medellin, Efrain Perez, and Venancio Medellin (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

“Did any of them ever express remorse for what they had done?” asked KPRC 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.

“Not that I know of. I mean, I didn’t obviously take all of them. I took, I took Derrick Sean O’Brien’s confession and one of the other defendants as well. But, from what I was told, Peter never, never expressed any remorse,” Miller said.

News footage showed Cantu smirk as the jury found him guilty. Cantu, O’Brien, and Jose Medellin were all given death sentences. O’Brien and Medellin did finally express remorse before their executions.

“I am sorry I have always been sorry. It’s the worst mistake I ever made in my whole life. Not because I am here, but because of what I did, and I hurt a lot of people,” O’Brien said during his last statement.

“I am sorry my actions caused pain. I hope this brings closure to what you seek,” Medellin said during his last statement.

Cantu gave no final statement before his execution.

“You have to wonder were what made, what made people like that, you know, for, for these six guys to get together and go through with an act this horrific what what caused them to be that way. Where not a one of them would stand up and say, ‘hey, wait a minute, this is wrong, we got to stop this,’” said Miller.

Perez and Villarreal were also given death sentences. However, both were juveniles and after The Supreme Court of the United States banned executions for those who committed crimes under the age of 18, their sentences were commuted to life in prison. At the time of the murders Texas did not have a sentence of life without parole, which is why both Perez and Villarreal with be eligible for parole in 2029.

Venancio Medellin was sentenced to 40 years in prison after being charged with aggravated sexual assault and agreeing to testify against four of the other gang members. State records show he became eligible for parole in 2003. He has not been released from prison, and his sentence ends in 2033.

White Oak Bayou (Copyright 2023 by KPRC Click2Houston - All rights reserved.)

Miller said this case also exposed a wider gang problem in Houston.

“Every street cop that was working back during those times knew that there was a gang problem in the city. The administration, for whatever reason, really didn’t address it or confront it head-on at that time,” Miller said. “This case, I think, changed that to the point where, given the nature of the crime and the, the whole gang part of it from beginning to end, they really couldn’t deny it any longer that there was a gang problem in Houston. And I think that it helped get the department to start confronting gang issues and gang problems at least head-on.”

This case is believed to be the first in Harris County where family members gave a victim impact statement, directly addressing defendants, following sentencing, according to Andy Kahan, director of victim services for Crimestoppers Houston. Family members of the girls were also part of the driving force that changed state policy to allow family members of victims to witness the execution of their loved one’s killer.

Miller said Ertman and Pena’s murders also helped detectives solve another murder.

“The same guys six months earlier had committed another murder, another equally horrific murder in Melrose Park,” said Miller. “And we wouldn’t have known about the the murder; her name was Patricia Lopez. We would not have known about her murder had we not received information that that these guys were involved in that as well.”

“Why did they kill her?” asked Arnold.

“They kidnaped her after she had run out of gas on the north side of town, not too far from Melrose Park, and they offered to buy her gas if she would buy them beer because they were under age and they couldn’t buy the beer. She agreed and then they they promptly kidnaped her, took her to Melrose Park, brutally raped her, and then disemboweled her and left her for dead. So it was it wasn’t until we started looking at that case as a result of a tip that we found fingerprints from Derrick Sean O’Brien on beer cans there, and ultimately DNA evidence from her body led us back to Jose Medellin, who was in prison by that time,” Miller said.

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About the Author:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”