Ramsey Orta: Imprisoned and Imperiled; Fiancée Alleges NYPD Systemic Abuse


Ramsey Orta is considered a political prisoner of the NYPD by his supporters. (Courtesy of Clayton Roulhac)

When Deja Richardson met Ramsey Orta in 2014, she did not know who he was. She did not know he filmed the video of then-NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo choking his friend Eric Garner to death.

Soon after they met, Richardson and Orta fell in love. When Orta first told her about the video, she was horrified.

“I was just in awe of the situation,” Richardson told The Fordham Ram. “It was so wrong that he was literally front and center, watching his friend being killed, watching his friend saying numerous times ‘I can’t breathe.’”

The video of Garner’s death galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement, and Orta became a hero to activists.

“Everyone who knows the name Eric Garner should know the name Ramsey Orta,” Hawk Newsome, a Black Lives Matter for Greater New York activist, told the Ram.

Newsome said the Grand Jury decision not to indict Pantaleo outraged him and became a watershed moment for his activism. 

Similarly, Joshua Lopez told the Ram Orta’s video helped him connect his uncle’s shooting by a police officer to other police brutality incidents.

And while Orta’s famous video shed light on a horrific injustice, what happened to Orta because of it adds another dimension to the story.

Orta is currently incarcerated, and will be until July 2020 due to being denied parole in August. By the time of his release, he will have spent 46 months behind bars. From the perspective of his supporters, he is a political prisoner of the NYPD.

Richardson said at the beginning of their relationship, the NYPD were definitely targeting Orta — riding by his house, shining lights in windows. According to her, he did not want to go outside in fear of undercover cops. 

“‘You recorded us,’” she said they told him. “‘Now we’re gonna record you.’” 

After a few arrests during this period, Orta was ultimately slapped with two criminal charges, one relating to marijuana and another for a gun, according to Richardson. 

Orta originally pleaded not guilty, according to The Verge. But then the prosecutors said they were going to add charges against Orta’s mother, Emily Mercado, according to Richardson. 

Richardson said they offered Orta a deal — including dropping the charges against his mother, who is responsible for caring for Orta’s younger brother. “Ramsey actually took the plea deal for his mom,” she said.

As a result there was never a trial, which, according to The New York Times, happens in 98% of felony arrests that end in convictions.

Lopez said he believes the police fabricated the case against Orta.

Back in 2011, Lopez’s uncle, John Collado, was in Inwood where he lived when he saw a fight breaking out between two individuals. Lopez said Collado tried to stop the fight, but it turned out that one of the people involved was an undercover cop. The officer shot and killed Collado without identifying himself.

The New York Daily News reported that the criminal case against the officer, James Connolly, was pronounced a mistrial. The family was awarded $14.1 million in a separate civil case.

Lopez got involved in activism after reading about cases like his uncle’s. He said his experience with his uncle helped him understand how the police behaved toward Orta, who would become his friend.

“When I first heard my uncle was murdered, they said my uncle was a professional wrestler who was choking out this cop, so I already know that it wasn’t adding up,” he said. “You can’t always believe what they say, especially about somebody who’s exposing them.”

Richardson said Orta considers himself a political prisoner and believes the video caused his incarceration.

“They know who he was, they knew what he did,” she said.

According to the Alliance for Global Justice, the United States has many political prisoners. Some, like Leonard Peletier and Mumia Abu Jamaal, have spent decades in prison, while others like Red Fawn Fallis only a couple of years.

Newsome said the NYPD is the problem.

“It reaffirms that the NYPD behave like a gestapo,” he said. “It reaffirms that we are living in a police state. … Even though we live in a so called progressive city led by progressive leaders, there’s no justice for black and brown people, it’s all a facade.”

According to Richardson, Correctional Officers (COs) have targeted Orta in prison.

This began on Rikers Island, where his cell block was served meatloaf containing rat poison, according to The Verge. Since then, Richardson said he has avoided food offered by COs, relying primarily on monthly packages she sends.

At least three times, for periods of between 30 and 60 days, Orta was held in solitary confinement as punishment for his behavior, according to Richardson and The Verge.

While in solitary, Orta was forced to eat prison food, and there was no way to contact him except through letters or a physical visit.

“It definitely is a form of torture,” Richardson said.

Lopez visited Orta during his time in isolation.

“You’re on the phone behind the glass,” he said. “I felt so, like, down seeing him like that. I wished I could have just gave him a hug and everything.”

Richardson said these periods were very scary for her.

“It has traumatized him,” Richardson said. “My worst fear is getting a phone call that he killed himself, or they’ve done something to him.”

She said she worries about the long term effects of solitary, especially given the suicide of Kalief Browder.

According to Lopez, it is difficult for him to maintain his activist involvement, especially with type one diabetes which puts him at particular risk at protests where he might be arrested. But Orta, who Lopez called a quiet man with the heart of a lion, has become a major source of inspiration.

Orta had a parole hearing in August that could have led to a December 2019 release. Richardson said 100 people sent support letters to the prison, and almost 2000 people signed a physical petition asking for his release, which gave her hope.

However, parole was denied. 

According to Richardson, what killed Orta’s chance was the large number of citations he accumulated at the different prisons, which she alleged is the result of targeting.

She said the motivated targeting became especially clear after the parole decision.

“Ever since the parole board hearing was done, Ramsey hasn’t got a ticket, hasn’t gotten in trouble, nobody’s harassing or bothering him,” she said.

Richardson said she has not been able to visit her fiancé since August because it is very difficult for her to reach Collins Correctional Facility, up near Buffalo. This meant she missed his birthday on Sept. 18.

She said she was in love with Orta after the first three months of their relationship, but she did not think he was serious about it. When he asked her to marry him, she turned him down. 

Orta proposed again in a letter he mailed from prison. Richardson said she has trouble remembering dates, but marked the time saying it took place while Orta was in two facilities before his current one.

The next time she visited him, he presented her with a ring he had managed to make in prison.

“He can’t give me an actual ring right now,” she said. “So I have that. I have the ring that he made for me out of the copper or whatever it is.”

Orta’s incarceration has created a major strain on Richardson.

“The situation we’re in right now and everything, it weighs on my heart, it weighs heavy, because I just want him to be back, I just want him to be with me, I just want to lay with him, I just want to talk to him, hug him,” she said. “I’m patiently waiting for July 2020 to come.”

Richardson said she wants to have a small, intimate wedding with only the couple’s closest friends and relatives after Orta’s release. She hopes to move to the suburbs or the country. 

According to her, for Orta’s physical, emotional and psychological safety, they will never be able to live in New York City again because of the NYPD. She said she hopes to start a new life with the help of GoFundMe donations. 

“We just feel that he wouldn’t survive, and he wouldn’t be living his life peacefully,” she said. “You know at this point, that’s all we both want, just peace and quiet.”