Jose Ortega was a legend in the Dominican communities in Hyde Park, Roslindale, and Jamaica Plain, the cofounder of a booming youth baseball organization that fielded teams for hundreds of kids from age 7 to 18. The Boston Broncos, they were called, and their alumni included such professionals as Nelfi Zapata, a catcher in the New York Mets farm system.
So when the Broncos’ 41-year-old coach was arrested in July on charges that he sent sexually suggestive Facebook messages to a 12-year-old on one of his teams, many players and parents rallied to Ortega’s defense. Some planned to raise money toward his $50,000 bail.
But it turns out Ortega’s supporters did not know the coach nearly as well as they thought. They didn’t even know his real name. Federal immigration officials say the man known as Ortega is really Frank Nina, a convicted cocaine dealer ordered to leave the country six years ago.
And while all of the sex abuse charges are related to a single 12-year-old boy, prosecutors say Ortega was “grooming” his victim for sexual assault, a practice seen among repeat offenders.
“We believe there are other victims out there,” said Jake Wark, a spokesman for the Suffolk County prosecutor’s office. “While there is some vocal support [for Ortega], there is widespread anonymous consensus that he has been doing this for years.”
News of Ortega’s alleged abuse and criminal past has split the Dominican community, with loyalists emphasizing his reputation as a tough but caring mentor, but other parents expressing suspicions about his motives.
“I’ve known him for 15 years, worked with him and against him, and I was very surprised,” said Owen Carlson, who manages the Boston Astros, a baseball team for ages 14 to 16 that plays against the Broncos. “Everyone I know was and is very shocked, confused, and surprised.”
‘Everyone I know was and is very shocked, confused, and surprised.’
The downfall of Ortega, who faces deportation in addition to criminal prosecution, threatens to take down the 500-child baseball program he created amid questions of how a felon and alleged sexual predator could have been in charge of it. The Internal Revenue Service also confirms that the program’s tax-exempt status was revoked because team officials failed to file reports on how they were spending membership fees paid by parents.
Already, the Broncos team for 12- to 14-year-olds has suspended play, and the older players were given new uniforms with a new team name shortly after Ortega’s arrest: They’re now the Roslindale Broncos.
“We came to practice one day and they handed us new uniforms,” said Kenneth Hernandez, a 14-year-old Broncos player as he warmed up for a game in late July. “There was no meeting; they just said our name was now Roslindale.”
Otherwise, officials associated with Broncos baseball are saying as little as possible. The other coaches in the program, including cofounder Julio Bello, have all agreed that they will not speak to the media, according to one Broncos official who asked not to be named. None returned calls from the Globe. Ortega’s attorney, William Lane, also has not returned calls.
But interviews — in Spanish and English —
Supporters say the nickname is a reverential reference to Ortega’s treatment of injured players with oils and ointments as well as his “magical” abilities as a hitting coach. Others insist the name is a nod to past rumors — never acted upon — of inappropriate conversations and interactions between the coach and some of his players.
The consensus among current and former players is that El Brujo was deeply involved and invested in the lives of his players – inviting boys to the mall and movies with him, and harshly scolding any misbehavior. But none of the dozens of players who spoke to the Globe said Ortega had ever touched or spoken to them inappropriately.
“I’ve never seen someone bend over backwards like he did, and I thought there was something weird about it,” said Reid Eblan, 27, who volunteers at the Roslindale Community Center and played for the Broncos for three years.
“Weird but comfortable,” Eblan added, “like family.”
Immigration officials say that Nina came to the United States legally from the Dominican Republic in 1989. He was arrested in 1998 and convicted of dealing cocaine in the park at the corner of Armory and Boylston streets. “His [legal] status was withdrawn as a result of an aggravated felony conviction for drug trafficking,” said Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
However, the drug conviction and threat of deportation did not prevent Nina, then using the name Jose Ortega, from getting together with Bello in 1999 to start the Boston Broncos, which now places teams in various baseball leagues across Massachusetts, including AAU, Babe Ruth, and Triple Play Baseball. It’s unclear what connection the two men had prior to starting the Broncos.
Ortega’s program caught fire in the Dominican communities in Hyde Park, Roslindale, and Jamaica Plain, where baseball is a way of life for many young boys.
Though a country of just 10 million people, the Dominican Republic provides more players to Major League Baseball than any foreign country — 95 on opening day this year — including David Ortiz and four others on the Red Sox roster.
Bello, in a 2009 interview with the Roslindale Transcript, described the passion of Broncos players proud to be part of one of Boston’s most prestigious baseball programs: “Most of these kids are here until 8 at night. It keeps them away from the TVs and computers.”
But, even before Ortega’s arrest, the Boston Broncos were running into organizational problems.
In 2007 the Internal Revenue Service revoked the program’s nonprofit status after it failed to file required forms for three straight years.
Four years later the Massachusetts secretary of state revoked the Boston Broncos’ program’s incorporation status because Ortega and Bello did not file required reports four years in a row, according to Brian McNiff, a spokesman for the secretary of state.
Essentially, the Broncos are no longer a recognized organization, even though parents pay $150 to $180 a year in registration plus additional fees for travel to tournaments.
Bello, who manages the club’s day-to-day operations and coaches many of its teams, did not return e-mails and calls for comment.
Some parents told the Globe that they never questioned the organization’s legitimacy, though some now wish they did.
“I regret not finding out about the background of the league,” said Luis Moreno, of Brookline, whose son trained with the Broncos for three years. “But I won’t make that mistake again.”
Ortega’s latest problems began at 11:15 p.m. on July 4 — his 41st birthday — when Boston police received a call from the father of a 12-year-old Broncos player recruited by Ortega in March. The man provided police with a series of Facebook messages between his son and the coach, which began March 27.
Prosecutors say Ortega invited the boy to shower at his home and requested naked pictures.
Eleven days later, Ortega, who is not married, was arrested and charged with four counts of enticement of a child under 16, one count of unnatural and lascivious acts with a child under 16, and one count of attempting to commit a crime.
Those close to Ortega maintain he was blindsided by the accusations and, after a month in custody, is battling depression. He dodged news cameras during his July 16 arraignment and missed an Aug. 10 court hearing.
“He doesn’t want to be seen in public with these charges against him,” his lawyer, Lane, told the more than 20 players, coaches, parents, and community members who attended the hearing, many to offer support.
“I completely trust him,” said Maritza Juliao, a coach of the Broncos’ 12- to 14-year-old team and mother of two boys coached by Ortega. “I have never seen anything inappropriate from Jose.”
Juliao said she has allowed both of her sons to travel with Ortega, who she said has been “like a father” to many of the Broncos players.
Juliao, who along with Bello has organized letter writing campaigns in support of Ortega, said parents have organized fund-raisers in support of the jailed coach.
But Ortega’s case casts a persistent shadow over the Broncos. Following a game in late July a handful of his former players ran from a teammate. They shouted, You can’t catch us, Brujo.”
Follow him on Twitter @WesleyLowery.