Vasquez-Orozco given 15 years to life in murder of sheriff’s deputy

Thomas Frey
Mountain Democrat
Juan Carlos Vazquez-Orozco follows Christopher Ross onto the elevator Friday, May 13, after receiving a sentence of 15 years to life for killing El Dorado County sheriff's deputy Brian Ishmael.
Thomas Frey/Mountain Democrat


SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — More than two years since El Dorado County sheriff’s deputy Brian Ishmael was murdered, Juan Carlos Vazquez-Orozco and Christopher Ross received their sentences Friday.

Vazquez-Orozco — the man who pulled the trigger — was ordered to serve 15 years to life plus an additional five years. Ross was sentenced to 11 years and 8 months for his role after he called 911 to falsely report a theft of marijuana on his Sand Ridge Road property in south county.

Ross had entered into an agreement allowing other people to grow marijuana on his property in exchange for money and a used Jeep.

Vazquez-Orozco was tending to that marijuana grow.

Deputies arrived at the property in the wee hours of Oct. 23, 2019.

Vazquez-Orozco was living in a tent on the property and said he had no idea authorities had been called. He was armed and didn’t speak English.

He was told to protect the marijuana plants and when he testified during trial he told the court it was dark and he couldn’t see who was on the property. He fired at Ishmael, wounding him four times, and also injured San Joaquin County deputy Josh Tasabia, who was on a ridealong.

After visiting Sacramento Superior Court Judge Sharon Lueras handed Ross his sentence, she spoke directly to him.

“You put this whole nightmare into place,” Lueras said with a capacity courtroom hanging on every syllable. “Your lies and greed resulted in the death of one officer and changed the lives of everyone involved forever.”

Lueras dropped all three gun enhancements and gave Vazquez Orozco what El Dorado County prosecutors said is the lowest possible sentence under the law.

Lueras justified her leniency, stating that Vazquez Orozco did not pose a danger to the public, that the crime was situational, that the crimes were merely the result of misinformation and mostly the fault of the property owner Ross. She noted the defendant was 20 years old at the time of the crime, a fact that is already considered for purposes of early parole and that he had no known prior criminal history.

Following Friday’s sentencing El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson released a statement responding to Lueras’ decision.

“It no longer matters whether you use a gun or how many people you harm or how many prior violent felonies you have committed,” stated Pierson. “The legislature has cleared the path for judges to individually assess defendants and disregard any enhancement, resulting in wildly inconsistent sentences that fail to hold violent criminals accountable.”

Tissue boxes were all around the Placerville courtroom as Ishmael’s colleagues, friends and family members were there to hear the sentences, including Brian’s wife Katie Ishmael, his sister Brenda Brown and his parents Kim and Don Ishmael, who all delivered statements about how the murder changed their lives forever.

“The day Brian was murdered I lost my soulmate, best friend, husband and father to our three children,” Katie said. “I had to sit in front of my then 5, 8 and 10-year-old babies and tell them that their father had been shot and killed and that he was not coming home and that he was never coming home.”

The moment Katie called Brian’s parents that morning is a moment Brian’s father Don said is still scarred in his memory.

“Kim answered the phone. I can still hear (Kim) screaming — ‘Brian’s dead! No!'” Don recalled. “At that moment the world of having two wonderful adult kids and seven fabulous grandkids was shattered. I could literally hear my heart break. The pain was so intense that I couldn’t catch my breath.”

Don said he felt paralyzed and he couldn’t cry and he wanted to scream.

“Kim was so scared she went and called 911 as she thought I was having a heart attack,” Don said.

“This single incident shattered and turned our lives upside down,” Brian’s mother Kim said. “Brian had so much to live for. He was only 37 years old and he was the kind of guy that would light up the room.”

Don told a story of Brian — who stands at 6-foot, 3-inches — “going the extra mile,” when he went to speak to a kindergarten class. Instead of sitting in a chair, he sat down on the floor with the kids so he would be at their height.

Katie said her children have moved to a new school district for a fresh start and they are all in counseling to try and cope.

“My little daughter is learning to control her anxiety and fear of something bad happening to me because she says I’m the only one left,” Katie said. “My son who is now 8 asked me if his memories of his daddy are real or a dream. My oldest felt she needed to grow up overnight.”

Katie said when she first broke the news to her kids about their father’s death her oldest daughter shut down.

“She locked up all the way from the moment the words came out of my mouth,” Katie said. “She kicked away from me and refused to be helped. That little girl didn’t just lose her daddy but her absolute hero.”

She said her son has since learned to ride a quad and her oldest daughter began playing basketball. Brian wasn’t there to share in the excitement.

She talked about all the big life events her husband won’t be at.

“Our children won’t get to look at their father beaming with pride,” Katie said.

Brian’s sister Brenda wrote a statement and it was read by her husband C.J. Brown in the courtroom. Brenda said she was about three when her younger brother was born and that they were inseparable.

“Growing up I had a built-in best friend with Brian and he followed me everywhere,” read Brenda’s statement. “Juan Carlos and Christopher Ross handed everyone of us a life sentence that morning. The memories I have of him now are all I will ever have. There will be no new memories.”

After the family spoke Lueras asked Vazquez-Orozco’s attorney Lori London and Ross’ attorney Adam Weiner if their clients wished to make a statement of their own. Vazquez-Orozco declined while Ross elected to speak.

“If I could go back in time to change some things I did that night to make sure these guys made it home safe I surely would,” said Ross, who then glanced toward the audience. “But on that note I would just like to say I’m sorry to the Ishmael family.”

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