2007-12-08 / News

Former council member now 'fugitive from justice'

By Scott Rawdon

NEWARK- Former Buckeye Lake Council member John Cortez is a "fugitive from justice," said Licking County Sheriff Randy Thorp during a news conference Tuesday.

Cortez was indicted Nov. 29 on a total of 24 counts, including 23 counts of unlawful sexual conduct with three minors and one count of corrupting three minors with drugs, specificallycocaine, in addition to one previous count of unlawfully possessing weapons. As of Wednesday, he remains at large, with a warrant for his arrest.

Monday, Licking County Sheriff Randy Thorp said he did not expect more charges to be placed against Cortez stemming from a raid of his home Nov. 8, but he said it is always possible that more people may come forward with further allegations.

When Cortez is apprehended or turns himself in, Thorp said he will ask for a high bond, because Cortez is an obvious flight risk. Cortez was released on a $5,000 personal recognizance bond after he turned himself in on the initial weapons charge. Thorp said during the Nov. 8 raid, officersfound three firearms in Cortez' home. Cortez was charged with possessing weapons under disability, a third degree felony; it's a felony for Cortez to possess weaponry because he was convicted of a burglary in 1991.

During the raid, in addition to the firearms, authorities confiscated nearly 500 videotapes and DVDs, some with images of teenagers having sex, a computer, and drug paraphernalia.

Cortez didn't show up for a bond continuance hearing Monday morning.

Thorp said during the Tuesday news conference at the Licking County Justice Center that Cortez engaged in a pattern of illegal sexual conduct with three different juvenile boys between the ages of 13 and 16 during a 10 month period from September 2006 to July 2007. Cortez served on the Buckeye Lake Village Council from 2001 until August 2007, when he was expelled from the council for missing eight meetings within a year, which is grounds for expulsion according to the Buckeye Lake Village Charter. Cortez must recently served as safety committee chair.

Licking County Prosecutor Ken Oswalt said that Cortez, if convicted on all counts against him, could potentially be sentenced to 115 years in prison for the sex counts, eight years for the drug count, fiveyears for the weapons charge, and he could potentially be fined more than $200,000. Oswalt doubted that Cortez, if convicted, would receive the maximum penalties, and he said it's too early to tell if a plea bargain could or would be struck. Oswalt said the victims and the officerswho participated in the case would need to be interviewed first.

It's difficultto compare Cortez' case to others, said Oswalt, because this case has multiple victims and Cortez held a public office.Judges are sometimes tougher on public officials.

During Tuesday's news conference, Thorp was asked why Cortez wasn't taken into custody and held on the weapons charges, and why Licking County Judge Michael Higgins wasn't aware that Cortez had more than the weapons charges pending when the former Buckeye Lake councilman was released after on the personal recognizance bond.

"There were reasons why some information wasn't put out," said Thorp, who added that judges are obligated to look at the existing charges, and not speculate about future charges. "From our perspective, we still had a lot to do on the sex cases," he said. At the time, informing the judge of the pending charges "was not the proper call," said Thorp. The bottom line directly after the raid was to bring Cortez into the justice center and question him.

Thorp suspects that Cortez is still in Central Ohio and law enforcement agencies nationwide are alerted to watch for him. Thorp said Cortez owns a white pick-up truck and black Cadillac whose license plate says CORTEZ. He asked anyone with information about Cortez or his location to call the Licking County Sheriff Department's Tip Line at (740) 670-5539.

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