Peter Anthony Cantu, 35, was executed by lethal injection on 17 August 2010 in Huntsville, Texas for the rape and murder of two teenage girls.
On the night of 24 June 1993, a group of teenage boys gathered at T.C. Jester Park in Houston to participate in a gang initiation ritual. Raul Villareal, 17, was being initiated into the Black and White gang, led by Cantu, then 18. The other gang members present were Derrick O'Brien, 18; Jose Medellin, 18; Efrain Perez, 17; and Roman Sandoval. Frank Sandoval and Venancio Medellin, 14, brothers of two of the gang members, were also present.
To be accepted into the gang, Villareal had to fight the other gang members in turn until he passed out. He lasted through three fights before briefly losing consciousness. Following this ritual, the boys drank beer, then they headed toward some nearby railroad tracks.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Pena, 16, and Jennifer Ertman, 14, were spending the evening at the swimming pool at a friend's apartment. As their midnight curfew approached, they discussed the fastest route to Pena's home. They decided to follow the railroad tracks that passed by T.C. Jester Park.
The girls were still on the tracks when they encountered the group of boys. They first passed by Roman and Frank Sandoval without incident. When Cantu saw them, however, he thought they were a man and woman. Frustrated that he was unable to have his turn fighting Villareal, he told the gang members that he wanted to beat the man up. The boys then ran after the girls and grabbed them. Ertman got away, but Medellin grabbed Pena and dragged her down off the hill. When Pena screamed, Ertman ran back to try to help her friend, but Cantu grabbed her and dragged her down the hill as well. At this point, Roman and Frank Sandoval decided to leave. Roman told Cantu that he did not rape or kill girls.
Next, the older boys raped the two girls for about an hour while Venancio watched. He went back and forth between his brother and Cantu, urging them to leave, but Cantu told him that he should "get some", so he joined in on raping Ertman. The girls were still being raped when Cantu whispered to Venancio, "We're going to have to kill them."
When everyone was finished, Cantu told the boys to take the girls into the woods. He told Venancio to stay behind, saying he was "too little to watch." The boys then began strangling the girls. Medellin and O'Brien wrapped O'Brien's red nylon belt around Ertman's neck. They pulled on the belt, one boy on each side, until the belt broke. They then used Ertman's shoelaces to finish strangling her. Cantu strangled Pena with shoelaces. After the girls were strangled, Cantu kicked Pena in the face with his steel-toed boots, knocking out several of her teeth. Several of Ertman's ribs were broken from being kicked. All of the boys then took turns stomping on both girls' necks to make sure they were dead. Finally, Cantu robbed Ertman of her rings, necklaces, and cash.
Later that night, Perez, Villareal, and Jose Medellin met at the house where Cantu lived with his older brother and sister-in-law, Joe and Christina Cantu. Christina noticed that Villareal was bleeding and that Perez had blood on his shirt and asked them what happened. The boys boasted about the rapes and killings. Medellin said that they "had fun" and that their activities would be seen on the TV news. Peter Cantu then walked in and readily agreed with their recollection of events. He also parceled out the jewelry and money he took from the girls.
When Jennifer and Elizabeth failed to come home that night, the Ertman and Pena families began searching for them. They alerted the police and posted fliers, but the girls were not found.
Four days after the murders, Christina Cantu convinced her husband to call the police. She told him that she felt sorry for the families and wanted them to be able to put their daughters' bodies to rest. Joe Cantu then placed an anonymous call to the Houston Police Department's "Crimestoppers" tip line. He told the police that the girls' bodies could be found in T.C. Jester Park at White Oak Bayou. The police searched the park without finding anything. While a police helicopter was flying over the park, Cantu called 9-1-1 and told them to look on the other side of the bayou. This led to the discovery of the girls' bodies, which were rapidly decomposing in Houston's sweltering summer heat.
The police traced the 9-1-1 call to Cantu's home. They questioned Joe Cantu, who identified himself as both the 9-1-1 caller and the Crimestoppers tipster. He gave the police the names of all of the perpetrators, except for new initiate Villareal, who he did not know.
Peter Cantu confessed to the murders at the time of his arrest. Some of the girls' jewelry was recovered from his bedroom. Some of the other boys, including Derrick O'Brien, Jose Medellin, and Venancio Medellin, also gave confessions.
A jury found Peter Cantu guilty of capital murder in February 1994 and sentenced him to death. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence in January 1997. All of his subsequent appeals in state and federal court were denied.
Four of the other assailants that night were also convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. Derrick Sean O'Brien was executed in July 2006. Jose Medellin was executed in August 2008. Both men apologized for the crime in their last statements. Raul Omar Villareal and Efrain Perez were sentenced to death, but following the U.S. Supreme Court's 2005 ruling that executing criminals who were not yet 18 at the time of their crimes is unconstitutional, their sentences were commuted to life. Venancio Medellin, who was 14 at the time, was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced to 40 years in prison. He remains in custody as of this writing.
The murders of Elizabeth Pena and Jennifer Ertman affected Houston deeply. To this day, Houstonians remember the girls' names and what happened to them. A memorial was erected to them at Waltrip High School, which they attended. A memorial for them was also placed at T.C. Jester Park. The murders also forced Houston city officials to treat gangs as a serious crime problem, when they had previously denied that there was a gang problem in the city.
Additionally, through the work of Houston crime victims advocate Andy Kahan, the case led to statewide policy changes giving crime victims and their families more of a voice in the criminal justice process. At Cantu's trial, immediately before the sentence was pronounced, Judge Bill Harmon allowed Jennifer's father, Randy Ertman, to speak directly to Cantu. Such victim impact statements, as they are called, are now commonplace.
The Ertmans and Penas, again with Kahan's assistance, were also instrumental in getting Texas law changed so that victims' relatives are permitted to witness the executions of their loved ones' killers.
Cantu declined requests for interviews prior to his execution. The victims' families attended the execution, but no one attended on his behalf. He did not look toward the witnesses and made no last statement. The lethal injection was started, and he was pronounced dead at 6:17 p.m.
By David Carson. Posted on 18 August 2010.
Sources: Texas Attorney General's office, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, court documents, public records, Associated Press, Houston Chronicle, murdervictims.com.