Twenty-five years later, authorities have finally confirmed the identity of the last known victim of the Los Angeles riots, PEOPLE has learned.
Miguel Armando Quiroz Ortiz’s charred body was found in the rubble inside a Pep Boys in South L.A. on May 2, 1992, four days after mayhem erupted following the acquittal of four L.A. police officers in the vicious beating of black motorist Rodney King.
More than 2,000 people were injured and 50 people died during the five days of looting, rioting and violence. More than 3,000 fires were set and more than 1,000 businesses were destroyed.
Dubbed John Doe #80, the 18-year-old Mexican national’s death is one of the 23 riot-related homicides that have never been solved.
Ortiz died of smoke and soot inhalation, carbon monoxide poisoning and thermal burns, and his death was considered a homicide because the fire, which was set between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. on April 30, 1992, was intentionally started, L.A. Police Department cold case detective Luis Rivera tells PEOPLE.
“He was alive when the fire started,” Rivera says. “Whoever set the building on fire, whether he knew it or not, was the person who killed him.”
“It was like random violence,” Rivera adds of the civil unrest. “There was so much going on, I don’t know how they would have been able to solve anything.”
Ortiz was finally identified through fingerprints. “All they had left from him was one middle fingerprint,” Rivera says. “The whole body was charred except for one finger.”
Rivera says that now that police know Ortiz’s identity, they will attempt to track down his killer.
“The biggest lead is we now know who he is,” he says. “This is like a cold case. We didn’t know who he was and now we know, and now we have to work backwards and find people who knew him.”
Putting a Name to a Face
Ortiz was discovered inside the repair shop at 5801 S. Vermont Ave, about 30 feet from the north entrance. A .38-caliber spent shell casing was discovered under his lower abdomen and appeared to be inside his jeans, according to his autopsy report.
There were signs that the store had been looted before it was torched, Rivera says.
“The body was so badly burned, I don’t know if they can tell if [Ortiz] was shot or not,” he says.
He says he sent the bullet to the lab for ballistic testing — to compare with shell casings at other crime scenes — but there was no match.
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Ortiz used three aliases, including “Armando Ortiz Hernandez,” which made the task of identifying him even more difficult. “He was switching names and sticking an extra name in there,” Rivera says. “When you ran him, it was impossible to find him.”
Ortiz’s body remained at the coroner’s office until he was cremated on July 22, 1992, and buried with other unidentified and unclaimed in an indigent grave in L.A.’s Evergreen Cemetery.
L.A. County Coroner Assistant Chief Ed Winter says they regularly ran Ortiz’s fingerprints through the national database, but he wasn’t identified until they received help from the FBI.
On April 6 of this year, they got a hit. “We knew it was one of our cold cases and we checked every year to see if we came up with something, and we finally did and we wound up getting notification,” Winter tells PEOPLE.
Ortiz’s sister was finally notified of his fate on May 12.
‘They Were Still Hoping’
Rivera says Ortiz, a native of Oaxaca, Mexico, came to L.A. for job opportunities in the late ’80s. He kept in contact with his family through letters and sent the money he made from his job at a bakery on Florence Avenue — which would be near the center of the rioting when it erupted in 1992 — home to his mother.
She filed a missing person report in Mexico in 1993 after she couldn’t reach him, Rivera says.
“His family had no idea what happened to him,” Rivera says. “They were still hoping he was alive.”
Ortiz’s younger brother Rafael Alfredo Quiroga Ortiz says much the same in an interview with PEOPLE. “We always had hope that he was alive,” Rafael says. “That maybe he had an accident, or lost his memory, or maybe he was in prison — something. But not that he was dead.”
Rafael says he last saw his brother — whom he described as “playful, “protective” and “friendly,” and who “loved sports very much” — in 1989, when Miguel returned home to Mexico to visit his family.
“He liked auto mechanics; he used to work at a shop. But he had to go to the United States so he could work and buy tools to open his own mechanic shop,” Rafael says. “That was his dream. He was looking for a better future. He wanted to give my parents and us a better life.”
The last person in their family to hear from Miguel was their sister, who spoke to him by phone in 1992, Rafael says.
“We were always searching for him,” he says.
“I think he was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” he says of Miguel. “If he weren’t in Los Angeles, he would still be alive.”
Rafael says his family plans to one day visit Miguel’s grave, and they have set up a GoFundMe to support them.
Trying to solve the 25-year-old homicide case will be difficult, Rivera admits. But that isn’t going to stop him from trying.
“It is going to be very difficult, because of lack of evidence and lack of witnesses at this moment. But we have to exhaust all our leads,” he says. “By putting his picture out, I am hoping someone will say, ‘I was with him at the store and I know what happened in the store.’ He might have gone in there with someone and [a] friend may have left him there and didn’t want to get involved.
“I am hoping to get more information on what he was doing in the store and someone may recognize him. He has a unique face.”
The Ortiz family hopes the same.
“We hope that maybe this article prompts someone’s sense of regret and [they] come forward with some information,” Rafael tells PEOPLE. “To let them know that for us, even though this happened 25 years ago, it’s like they had just killed him [Miguel]. For us, my brother just died.”
Anyone with information about Ortiz is urged to contact the L.A. police cold case unit at 213-486-6810.
• With reporting by HENRY MOSQUERA