Alejandro Ortega, 55, studied medicine in Cuba before he was exiled to South Florida to raise a son on his own while battling mental illness.
Andre Brown, the son of a school teacher and a plumber, was a slight 23-year-old who worked odd jobs before succumbing to mental illness and homelessness.
Their lives intersected only briefly on May 28, inside Room 452 in the psychiatric ward at Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, where staffers paired them together as roommates. But it ended violently: Ortega, viciously beaten and strangled with a blood-soaked towel, and Brown jailed on a charge of second-degree murder.
Nearly six months later, newly released police and civil-court documents offer new details about the circumstances surrounding Ortega’s death, but also raise questions about how closely Mount Sinai supervised both men.
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Prosecutors may learn more about Brown’s stay when they go to court Tuesday to ask a judge to order the release of Brown’s Mount Sinai medical records.
Meanwhile, in Miami-Dade civil court, Ortega’s son is suing Mount Sinai for wrongful death, saying his father’s psychiatric woes left him “incapacitated and unable to protect himself.” To make matters worse, days before the murder, Ortega’s son visited the hospital and noticed his father sported a black eye and a deep torso bruise, suggesting he had been attacked earlier.
“The son brought it to the hospital’s attention and was assured that his dad was going to be looked after,” said Coral Gables attorney Robert Pelier. “Lo and behold, he gets murdered. That’s surreal.”
Brown’s family is also grappling for answers.
“Why is that at this hospital, they didn’t have separate rooms?” said Adrienne Brown, 23, Andre’s twin sister, adding: “I won’t believe that my brother could do such a thing. He can’t hurt a fly. It’s not his character.”
A hospital lawyer on Friday declined to answer questions about the death, citing the ongoing lawsuit. At the time of the killing, the hospital said in a statement that “safety and well-being of our patients is our top priority. We continue to work with authorities in their ongoing investigation.”
The Behavioral Health Unit at Mount Sinai houses a mix of mental-health patients who have been admitted voluntarily, and some who have been committed against their will under the state’s Baker Act. Patients are supposed to be checked on every 15 minutes.
Exactly how Brown came to be admitted at Mount Sinai remains unclear. Brown later told police that somebody had shot him in the foot — although he had no wound — and he walked into Aventura Hospital, where he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. He said he was later transferred to Mount Sinai.
“It’s unfortunate that Andre has been accused of this crime. By all accounts, Andre was a model patient at Mount Sinai, friendly and helpful with both staff and patients, including Mr. Ortega,” said his defense lawyer Stacy Marczak.
“Andre continues to look forward to his day in court when he will be able to contest these allegations.”
One of eight siblings, Brown hails from a tight-knit Haitian family. He was mostly raised in Boston with his single mother, though he attended middle school in Florida, where his father runs a plumbing company.
At age 21, after dropping out of high school, Brown moved back down to South Florida, where he drifted through odd jobs at chain clothing stores, warehouses and even a company that combs beaches.
Still, he doted on his younger siblings. “Andre used to use his little money to buy them sneakers,” Adrienne Brown said.
His sister said Brown struggled with mental illness, though it remains undiagnosed. She declined to say what led to Brown leaving his father’s home. “Andre really is a good kid. Life dealt him a bad card,” she said.
Brown did not have an extensive criminal history. In November 2015, Brown accepted probation for selling marijuana, a case that did not count as a felony conviction on his criminal history. He was arrested on a charge of selling marijuana again in early May. A warrant was issued for his arrest when he failed to appear in Miami-Dade court a few weeks later.
Brown still had that open warrant when he was admitted into Mount Sinai toward the end of the month. Until he was arrested, Brown’s time there went smoothly.
One nurse described Brown as “very helpful” and “respectful,” even noting he had fetched socks for Ortega just a few hours before the body was found. “This is very surprising,” the nurse told a detective of the killing.
As for Ortega, he was raised in Santa Clara, Cuba, where he studied at the Institute of Medical Sciences. But he was kicked out when the government got wind of his desire to move to the United States.
“He was emotionally devastated and developed a deep state of depression as a result of this,” according to his family’s lawyer.
Ortega, who enjoyed writing poetry and essays, later came to Miami. But his life was marred by mental illness and he had been living at the Douglas Gardens Community Health Center in Miami Beach before a medical episode landed him at the hospital six days before his death.
But unlike Brown, Ortega’s stay at the hospital was rocky.
He often cursed at people while roaming the halls, sometimes wandering into other people’s rooms and falling asleep, staffers told Miami Beach detectives. One nurse said Ortega tried to hit him while he dispensed medication.
“He was very intrusive. He would, like, walk up and down the halls naked masturbating,” nurse Jesus Bombani told police.
Ortega’s body was not found until his son came to the hospital to see his father.
That day, secretary Claudia Mosquera went to fetch the elder Ortega. She peeked in his room but didn’t see him. He was nowhere else to be found. A few minutes later, Mosquera checked again, this time opening the bathroom door. She found Ortega laying in the blood-spattered bathtub.
Bombani, the nurse, rushed to the room’s bathroom. Ortega was on the floor, “blood everywhere,” he told police. “His face ... it looked like it was beaten to a pulp,” Bombani told police. “It was like all purple and flamed.”
Another nurse noticed a blood-soaked towel wrapped tightly around his neck.
Staffers immediately realized that Ortega had been beaten and suspicion fell on Brown. They found him “casually watching TV” in the lounge area, the back of his gown splotched in apparent blood.
One patient, watching “Law and Order,” said Brown sat down and admitted to the killing. “I thought it was just schizophrenic rambling,” the patient said.
Miami Beach police officers rushed to the hospital and found Brown, who blurted out: “It was self-defense. I had to do it,” according to an arrest report.
In a rambling and often incoherent statement to police, Brown repeatedly referred to Ortega as his “real father” who was “trying to touch the females in the hospital.” Brown also noted that “somebody blackened his eye before” — echoing the account of Ortega’s son.
“I was trying to help him and change him but maybe he was like some Satan, devil; something was wrong with him,” Brown told Miami Beach Detective Manuel Chorens. “It was something really wrong, the guy was possessed.”
The two had only been placed in the same room earlier that day and “we was getting along perfect.” He said he even helped Ortega get into the shower and gave him clothes to wear.
But that evening, Ortega followed him into the bathroom, where he pummeled the older man with at least 20 blows, according to an arrest report.
“He tried to touch me and we started fighting, bro,” Brown said. “And I couldn’t stop myself.”