The investigation into the shootout that rocked Charlottesville’s Belmont neighborhood in early January seemed to end abruptly last week with the announcement that the felony firearm charge had been dropped against 22-year-old Jose Omar Rivas Sorto. Court documents show that Sorto, a recent arrival from Mexico, had been charged with firing a weapon from a vehicle, but the charge was abandoned on April 27.
The facts of the case are complicated, and they make Sorto sound to some like a border-crossing, wife-saving, gun-grabbing hero.
“It’s like a Greek tragedy,” said longtime Charlottesville resident M.J. Smith, who’s been closely following the case.
Sorto, living in Rockville, Maryland, had made arrangements for his wife to cross the border from Mexico and join him in America, according to a criminal complaint which recounted the events of Jan. 8, the day of the fatal shooting.
“He received a call from her last week, and she told him that she was in Texas and that she was okay,” according to that narrative. “The next day Mr. Sorto received a call from an unknown male who stated that if he ever wanted to see his wife again he would have to pay $10,000.”
What followed over the course of several days was a series of communications in which Sorto was allegedly given instructions on making the payment to ensure his wife’s safe return from alleged kidnappers.
“He only spoke to his wife once on the phone during this time and heard voices on the other end of the line telling her what to say to him,” according to the document.
The Charlottesville police narrative, under a warrant certified by Detective C.P. Wagner, asserts that electronic messages and other accounts corroborated Sorto’s story. He allegedly showed investigators a series of text messages showing geographical pins dropped to guide him through Virginia, with a tiny tire shop in the Belmont neighborhood the final destination.
A pie-shaped property at the intersection of Hinton Avenue and Monticello Road, Fitzgerald’s Tire Co. is home not only to radial tires and hydraulic lifts but also to an iconic mural. There, locals and tourists routinely gather to get photographed in front of the “I Love Charlottesville A Lot” message with its O’s spelled out in tires.
Why the planned handover took place in a parking lot on a Sunday afternoon in Charlottesville may never be known, but a person close to the case surmised that it may simply have been a convenient location between the alleged kidnappers and Sorto’s home in Rockville.
“Charlottesville was chosen completely at random,” according to the motion to dismiss the charge. “The meeting in this jurisdiction was a matter of complete happenstance.”
“Mr. Sorto arrived to the location unarmed,” reads the police narrative. “He stated that a male with a black-hooded sweatshirt who spoke English approached him on foot.”
Sorto told investigators he had seen the outline of a handgun in a hoodie pocket. Declining to hand over any money until he could see his wife, Sorto reported that a silver pickup truck then rolled up with his wife in the back seat. According to the narrative, Sorto was led into the truck’s front passenger seat as the money was counted.
Sorto told investigators that his wife was held at gunpoint by the hooded man in the back while an assault-styled rifle lay in the driver’s footwell. The alleged ransom-seekers quickly “became agitated” because Sorto had brought not the $10,000 demanded but only the $4,000 that he could muster.
“We’re not playing,” the men reportedly said.
Unbeknownst to the two alleged kidnappers, Sorto had invited his uncle and two other men to this event, and Sorto’s people soon pulled into the lot in a red Jeep Cherokee.
What happened next is described both in police and prosecution documents filed in Charlottesville General District Court: a mad rush for arms, dropped cash and Sorto grabbing the shoulders of the driver in a failed effort to prevent him from shooting.
Sorto and his people screamed for his wife to run for her life, and the driver began firing the rifle toward them, according to the narrative, which noted that the rifleman then tossed the rifle into the pickup’s front passenger compartment. Trapped between the truck and the tire shop, Sorto suddenly found himself within reach of the rifle.
“He reached into the truck and instinctively picked the rifle up,” according to the narrative. “He fired at both males. Once he saw the males fall to the ground, he immediately stopped firing.”
This action was seen by witnesses and captured by surveillance footage, according to police, who subsequently identified the dead pickup driver. The young man’s obituary from Bastrop Providence Funeral Home in Bastrop, Texas, was brief: “In loving memory of Osvaldo Lopez Hernandez, 20, of Austin, Texas.”
The other person Sorto shot survived and has yet to be identified. Still, Charlottesville Police revealed that they charged him with felony abduction for financial benefit, felony use of a firearm and misdemeanor brandishing. The court file indicates that this John Doe was initially placed into a medically induced coma at the University of Virginia hospital and was expected to survive, but his current condition remains unknown.
City Police Chief Michael Kochis said Tuesday that he did not know the John Doe’s current legal or medical status. But he said that he did not disagree with the decision by Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Nina-Alice Antony to drop the shooting charge against Sorto.
“The evidence established that Sorto reasonably feared that he was in imminent risk of death or serious bodily injury,” Antony wrote in her nolle prosequi motion to abandon the charges. “Being confronted with two armed men, one of whom had already fired his weapon multiple times at Sorto and his family, Sorto reacted with an opportunity to protect himself and his loved ones.”
Legal analyst Scott Goodman applauded the motion.
“The commonwealth attorney did exactly what a commonwealth attorney should do and that is seek to do justice, not just to prosecute.”
Goodman noted that the arrest was likewise appropriate given that it takes time to sort out such a violent, volatile situation.
“Thank goodness for cameras and witnesses that were able to back up the defendant’s story,” said Goodman.
The lawyer noted that what happened at the tire shop is part of a larger immigration story.
“This is a scenario that probably plays out in lots of places — more than we know about,” said Goodman. “You read about bodies found on the side of the road and shootings and deaths, and it’s never clear what happened.”
What happened to Sorto is part of the immigration story in another way. Although freed from prosecution in Charlottesville, sources close to the case indicate that Sorto is now in federal custody on immigration charges.
A message left Tuesday with his lawyer at the local public defender’s office was not immediately returned, and efforts to learn his whereabouts were not successful.
“It’s tragic,” said Smith. “He got so close.”