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Columbus police officer pleads guilty to 2022 fatal hit-and-run crash

Columbus Police vehicles outside the division headquarters.
David Holm

A Columbus Police Officer has entered a guilty plea in connection with a fatal hit-and-run crash that occurred in April 2022.

The officer, 50-year-old Demetris Ortega, was indicted in April of 2023, for the crash, which killed 27-year-old Naimo Mahdi Abdirahaman.

Ortega pleaded guilty to charges of failing to stop after an accident and misdemeanor drunk driving.

Assistant Franklin County Prosecutor Jeff Zezech said at the hearing that the charge of vehicular homicide was not added, due to investigators not being able to determine who was at fault, as well as a lack of security cameras and witnesses to actual the crash.

Zezech detailed the process of the investigation during the hearing, according to reporting from the Columbus Dispatch. Abdirahaman was reportedly crossing Morse Road near Walford Street at an intersection with marked crosswalks when the crash happened.

About five hours after the crash, police received a call about a suspicious vehicle at a house a few miles away. The vehicle had a dent, blood on the hood and a missing wheel, Zezech said. The car was registered to Ortega, and fit the description of debris left at the scene of the crash “like puzzle pieces,” Zezech said. Investigators later determined the blood was Abdirahaman’s.

Police also found that Ortega visited a pub close to the scene crash.

In footage obtained from the pub, Ortega is seen drinking multiple beers and shots, and is later seen “visibly stumbling” while walking to his car. According to data from Ortega’s SUV, the vehicle was traveling between 51 and 56 mph in a 45 mph limit zone. The data also showed the vehicle slowing from 56 mph to 53 mph, without slowing at the crash site and continuing to where the vehicle was later found, Zezech said.

Zezech also said that due to the five-hour gap between the crash and when the vehicle was found, a field sobriety test or blood test was not possible. Zezech said that during an interview with Ortega, he admitted to “blacking out” from drinking the night of the crash and "self-rated his intoxication at a nine out of 10."

While Abdirahaman’s family was not at the plea hearing, they have filed a civil suit against Ortega.

Abdirahaman’s family has also expressed frustration at the lack of transparency by the Columbus police for the nearly 12-month period before Ortega was indicted.

The Columbus Dispatch reported that Abdirahaman was born in Kenya in a Somali refugee camp and came to the United States as a child. She had become an American citizen and graduated from Columbus State Community College and had plans to become a nurse practitioner. Abdirahaman also had a young son who was two at the time of his mother's death and has been living with relatives.

Ortega is still listed as an active police officer with the Columbus Division of Police as of Thursday. An investigation after the conclusion of the criminal case will determine if he violated any policies or procedures. He was off duty at the time of the crash.

Regarding Ortega's status as an officer, the Columbus Division of Police said in an email response to WOSU, "Demetris Ortega is retiring in bad standing beginning October 4, 2023."

Ortega faces up to three years in prison and a multi-year license suspension.

He is scheduled to be sentenced on Nov. 3.