Sex, lies and a manila envelope 


;In early April, someone mailed envelopes to a handful of local public officials. In each was a set of five grainy pictures of two naked women kissing, fondling and having oral sex. Each envelope included a simple cover sheet consisting of the handwritten initials "M.L." and the handwritten name "Belinda Ortiz.";

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Though Ortiz is the Republican Party of Florida's Hispanic outreach director and a perennial candidate for local political office, she wasn't one of the recipients of the envelopes. But her contacts at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce were on the mailing list. And when Ortiz saw the pictures, she was understandably upset.

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"The woman photographed is NOT me," she says in a sworn April 9 statement to the Orlando Police Department, "as I do not wear my hair curly, do not wear acrylic nails, do not have breast implants and am not in as good of shape as the woman in the photos. For the record, I have never taken or allowed pornographic photos to be taken of me."

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The contents of the envelope don't explicitly state that Ortiz is in the pictures. Nonetheless, based on a single fingerprint, the state attorney's office issued an arrest warrant in May for Edwin Melendez, 44, a member of the National Latino Officers Association. Melendez has worked personally with Ortiz, and allegedly had conflicts with her in the past. NLOA pursues cases of police misconduct, and Melendez has an extensive criminal history. On paper, he was an easy target.

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Melendez was arrested in July on criminal misdemeanor charges of unlawfully defaming Ortiz in a publication. But those charges were weak for the obvious reason that the pictures never appeared in a publication. They were dropped in early August prior to a motion to dismiss.

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But it seems that someone really wanted to teach Melendez a lesson. So prosecutors dug deep and came up with an antiquated Florida law, statute number 836.04, that prohibits anyone from impugning a woman's chastity. Call a woman a "whore" in this state – only women can be defamed under the statute – and you're in violation of a rarely used law. (They also added stalking charges, for good measure.)

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Melendez came up with his bond, but was nonetheless held in jail for five days because the courts were running short of GPS monitoring devices.

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If it all appears like a lot of fuss over a set of grainy lewd pictures, it is. Both prosecutors and the public defender's office got involved. Court and jail time were required. Police investigators had to go all CSI to forensically investigate the envelope. Melendez had to pay $85 a week for the GPS monitoring that kept track of him so he didn't flee during the ordeal. And in the end, the charges of defaming Ortiz by impugning her chastity were dropped.

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Melendez maintained his innocence through it all. On Oct. 2, he accepted a deal wherein he would plead guilty to one misdemeanor stalking charge, and the rest would be stricken from the record. He would walk away a free man, so long as he avoids contact with Ortiz.

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"They broke my spirit to keep fighting," he says. "No matter how fucking ridiculous the fucking offer, it's an offer to end the nightmare."

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Such is the high cost of dirty politics in Central Florida.

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Ortiz's recent political ambitions may not have brought her victory – in early 2008, she narrowly lost a bid for the Orlando city council to Tony Ortiz, and in November 2008 she was unable to defeat Gary Siplin, the controversial state senator from Orlando. But they did bring her status. In December 2008, Republican Party of Florida chairman Jim Greer announced that Ortiz would serve the party as director of Hispanic outreach and deputy director of the minority outreach and coalitions department of the RPOF.

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Ortiz, who trends moderate in her political image, brought with her some controversy. During her Senate campaign, she made waves by appearing at a candidate forum put on by the Human Rights Campaign. There she had visible support from the Log Cabin Republicans, or gay conservatives, who were also working outside party lines to defeat the anti–gay marriage Amendment 2.

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That unorthodox alignment became easy fodder for political gamesmanship. In her police statement, Ortiz alleges that opponent Gary Siplin circulated an e-mail from "a fabricated Christian organization" that said "‘Christians oppose Ortiz liberal policy' or something like that."

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Ortiz lost the election in November, but the gay issue lived on. On Feb. 23, she was forwarded an e-mail from Ramon Ojedas, president of the Orlando Hispanic Chamber. Ojedas was one of a number of people who got an e-mail from "Belindagay32@aol.com" that had a link to a MySpace page containing Ortiz's resume, along with other publicly available information and photos. But the page also lampooned Ortiz in an offensive manner.

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"However, the verbiage and comments [on the] photos posted were pornographic and racial," she says in her statement to OPD.

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Other area politicos were also targeted in photographs on the MySpace page. A photo of Central Florida News 13 reporter Victor Martinez, an associate of Ortiz's, was captioned "my attack dog, give him a piece of ass and he'll do anything I want to dig up dirt on my opponent."

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Melendez was among those to receive the e-mail. Suspiciously, at least to Ortiz, he changed the subject line to read "Is Belinda Gay?" and forwarded it to his cousin, Jose Miranda, also a member of the NLOA. That e-mail got back to Ortiz, and she sensed a pattern.

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Ortiz says in her police statement that Melendez had a history of harassing her and that things had become worse after the e-mail. One text message he sent, according to Ortiz's four-page police statement, inquired, "Do you think I like you, even though I prefer blonds?" Ortiz replied, "What? You know I'm dating an executive with one of our local stations, right?"

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Former state attorney candidate Mercedes Leon – who also received the photo package in April – confirmed Ortiz's suspicions. She says, in her own sworn police statement, that Melendez and Jose Miranda had presented themselves as her bodyguards during her campaign (they were not) and that her brother, Jesus Leon, had a confrontation with Melendez over the repair of an air-conditioning unit. When Leon refused to repair Melendez's air conditioner, he received an envelope of nasty photographs.

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"If all these incidents are in fact linked, I am afraid for my safety," Ortiz says in her statement.

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Since the plea deal, Ortiz has been more open about her opinion of Melendez. She paints a picture of an unstable man who would stop just short of breaking the law to intimidate her.

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"I had to do what I had to do to protect myself," she says. "I didn't know at what point he was going to snap and get violent."

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Edwin Melendez had just returned to Orlando from a two-month trip to his hometown of New York City on July 6. On July 9, he was arrested on a no-bail warrant. The next morning, while facing the judge, he found out that the state had filed charges against him: four counts of defamation for putting out publications intended to promote ridicule, hatred or embarrassment. He was granted bail, but spent five days in jail waiting for a GPS monitor.

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Melendez is not new to the justice system. The army veteran, currently living on $2,000 per month in disability benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder, has amassed a laundry list of criminal infractions: 11 felony charges with five convictions, 10 misdemeanor charges with four convictions. He has a history of aggravated assault, battery, harassment, stalking, aggravated stalking and burglary, kidnapping and sexual assault, according to police reports.

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"I've been arrested before," he says. "I'm no saint. I've gotten in trouble with the law. I've had legal issues. I became disabled and I found a calling with the [NLOA] to do the right thing, to expose ; public corruption."

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Most of the time that "exposure" has amounted to complaining about how cops treated him. A March 24 complaint, for example, shows Melendez accusing an officer of "speaking to him with a cigar in his mouth and talking to him as though he was a thug."

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But it was an event on June 1, 2007, that really put Melendez at odds with law enforcement. That night, at Coco Bongo's nightclub, following a networking party presented by the NLOA and the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, Melendez was allegedly hit on the head with a bottle by off-duty Orange County sheriff's deputy Edwin Garcia. The assault sent Melendez to the hospital and led to the arrest of NLOA leader Anthony Miranda, who while defending himself had placed several calls to 911. The ACLU Central Chapter got involved, claiming the attack was the result of NLOA filing complaints against members of Garcia's family.

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"Just as I was trying to stop them, one of them picked up a bottle and hit him on the head," says Miranda. "They did no investigation or attempt to identify. There's no doubt that an assault took place. They let [Garcia] go."

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The sheriff's department denied any wrongdoing.

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Miranda noted the incident in a complaint he filed with the U.S. Department of Justice Sept. 17 in defense of the defamation charges against Melendez, adding, "Since Mr. Melendez joined our team in 2004, he has been the subject of several arrests, assaults by police personnel and malicious prosecutions. We believe that these cases warrant review and intervention. We also believe that the motivation behind these actions is a result of the type of advocacy the NLOA undertakes: Some of the issues we address focus on police misconduct and discrimination."

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On Aug. 4, after dropping all four counts of defamation by publication, the state attorney's office brought four other counts of defamation – for violating state statute 836.04, "Whomever speaks of and concerning any woman, married or unmarried, falsely and maliciously imputing to her a want of chastity, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the first degree" – and one far-reaching count of cyberstalking Ortiz between January 2007 and May 2009.

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Florida statute 836.04 was enacted in 1883. The law, according to public defender Melissa Vickers, who assisted public defender Joseph Knape on this case, is not used much. In 1894, Holmes County resident Marion Burnham was convicted of defaming Lula Burnham by accusing her of having sex with her brother, Addie Hewett, prior to her marriage. An 1896 ruling by the Florida Supreme Court reversed the charges based on lack of evidence. Ten years later, the Supreme Court upheld charges against R.B. Stutts for slandering an unmarried woman; in that case, the court found that slander did not require that a defamatory insult be heard by a third person.

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"When I read that statute, and I picture what the legislative intent behind it was, I would picture people in a public place chastising her, calling her something unpleasant," says Joseph Knape. "The hardest thing is having a jury follow the law when they themselves can't say that they probably haven't violated the law. I'm sure that most of us have."

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On Aug. 14, Knape filed his second motion to dismiss all charges. On the defamation counts, he highlighted the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. "The plain language of the statute indicates a sex classification, amounting to discrimination on the basis of gender," he writes.

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Miranda, in his complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice, likewise questions the validity of the charges and the motivation behind them.

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"We are alleging a pattern of behavior by both law enforcement officers and prosecutors in Orlando that are criminal, discriminatory, malicious and at best criminally negligent," he writes. "The documents filed by the public defender's office support these allegations. In fact, I have had many conversations with the various public defenders involved with Mr. Melendez's cases. They also questioned the motivation of the prosecutors."

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(Randy Means, spokesman for the state attorney's office, refused to comment on the case outside the courtroom.)

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And it wasn't just the prosecutors the defense was questioning. On Sept. 17, Knape filed a motion to recuse circuit judge Maureen Bell from the Melendez case, claiming that Bell might be biased.

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At a Sept. 3 pretrial conference, following failed attempts to schedule a hearing on the motion to dismiss, Bell "indicated the possibility of sentencing Mr. Melendez to a consecutive term of imprisonment that could extend up to nine years if found guilty on all counts." On Sept. 17, in open court, Bell reportedly stated that even a motion to dismiss would not apply to all the charges. (Melendez says he was offered a plea of six months in jail with one year of probation, which he declined.) Bell also sang the praises of the prosecutor and warned of "high-profile" witnesses, "which indicates that the court has already made a decision about the motion to dismiss without hearing testimony or argument," wrote Knape.

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Bell was removed.

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But there was no trial. On Oct. 2, Melendez accepted the prosecution's final offer: a guilty plea on a single misdemeanor charge of stalking, and all of the other charges would be dropped. No jail. No probation.

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This, despite the potential that the prosecution would have had a tough time proving its case. There are the photos, none of which depict Ortiz, according to her own statement. There's the fact that they were not mailed to Ortiz. The MySpace page has been deleted; none of the offending e-mails or text messages are in the discovery file, beyond Ortiz's accounts of them.

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The only quantifiable link to Melendez is tenuous. According to Orlando police records from the crime-scene technician, on April 30 the envelopes were processed for fingerprints with negative results. Then, on May 1, the items were processed with positive results; Melendez's fingerprint was found on the packing tape for one of the envelopes, says Vickers.

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Meanwhile, Melendez plans to live as far away from Florida as possible. "I never found this to be a home," he says. He maintains that the attack on him has been one of political persuasion, right down to the phone call he suspects resulted in the Oct. 1 plea offer.

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"I am telling you I am not guilty of stalking and I am not guilty of defamation," he says. "I'm taking the plea because, you know what? They broke me. They broke me down as a human being."

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Ortiz wishes Melendez were in jail.

; bmanes@orlandoweekly.com

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