After more than a week of deliberations, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced on Friday that he is reassigning a high profile murder case from embattled State Attorney Aramis Ayala and handing it over to a different circuit’s state attorney.
There have been many twists and turns on how the murder of Nicole Montalvo will be prosecuted ever since Osceola County Sheriff Russ Gibson complained about the lack of prosecution in the case. Gibson went to Attorney General Ashley Moody asking her to remove Ayala from the case.
Montalvo went missing back on October 21. Her remains were found a few days later at the home where her estranged husband and father-in-law lived. Her body had been hacked into pieces and buried by an excavator.
Gibson immediately put the crime on the ex-husband Christopher Otera-Rivera and his father Angel Rivera. Ayala did not file murder charges in the 33 days after the arrest as required if the defendants are going to be held in jail with no bond. The state attorney said the evidence was just not there to convict the pair of murder and insisted Gibson does not know and cannot prove exactly which of the two killed Montalvo. When the arrests were made in November, Ayala asked Gibson to hold off on arresting them for murder so there would be more time to gather evidence that would lead to a better chance of conviction. He refused and arrested them for murder.
Ayala and Gibson held dueling press conferences as each blamed the other for the case getting bogged down. This led to DeSantis having a team of attorneys investigate the matter. On Friday, DeSantis issued an executive order relieving Ayala of the case and giving it to State Attorney Brad King whose district includes Lake and Marion Counties.
“After review by my office and consultation with the Montalvo family, today I am issuing an executive reassignment of the Nicole Montalvo murder case to State Attorney Brad King of the Fifth Judicial Circuit,” said DeSantis. “Under the current circumstances, I believe moving the case under State Attorney King’s jurisdiction provides the best chance for the Montalvo family to receive the justice they deserve.”
In his order, DeSantis cited comments made at a press conference by Ayala which made him wonder about her ability to handle the case. DeSantis’ order also references a conversation the governor had with Gibson where the sheriff told him that Ayala’s apprehension about the death penalty was preventing the pursuit of justice.
Moody weighed in on the governor’s decision.
“Today, Governor DeSantis took bold action to ensure fair and effective justice in the Nicole Montalvo murder case, and I would like to thank the governor for taking my request and the concerns of the victim’s family seriously,” she said. “As a former judge and prosecutor, I was unsettled by the situation in Osceola County and feared it was escalating in a manner not conducive to the ends of justice. With the appointment of State Attorney Brad King, I am encouraged that the Montalvo family will receive the justice they deserve.”
Ayala held her own press conference to correct what she called an “executive order riddled with inaccuracies.”
Weighing in on claims that her opposition to the death penalty affected the case, Ayala noted she is pursuing the death penalty in three cases in Osceola County.
“Our standard of proof does not change just because the facts are horrendous,” she told the media.
Ayala said she most offended though by comments from Gibson that she was actually hindering the case.
“The prosecutors in my office have been working on this case every single day,” said a clearly upset Ayala. She pointed out that the Office of Statewide Prosecution advising the governor on this matter has not seen the DNA evidence or the medical examiner’s report on the murder.
Ayala also said there was politics involved.
“It is unfortunate that the governor personally met with the sheriff and the family members of Nicole Montalvo, yet he never personally called or reached out to speak to me or anyone who was involved in the case in my office. You see, the sheriff enjoyed a privilege of being consulted that I nor anyone else in my office enjoyed. He also enjoyed the privilege of having his word taken at face value,” she said.
Montalvo’s family told DeSantis they were concerned about Ayala’s ability to pursue justice. Despite that, Ayala reached out to them on Friday though she took a political shot in her message.
“I’m terribly sorry for your loss, and that my heart sincerely breaks for you. I cannot imagine anything more painful than losing a sister, than losing a mother, and losing a daughter. I do recognize that there is nothing I can say to the family that will alleviate this pain, but it is my hope over time …My heart goes out to all other victims in the state of Florida who desire the governor’s interference but won’t get it,” she said.
King is no stranger to getting cases reassigned to him. When Ayala originally announced her opposition to seeking the death penalty in any case shortly after her election in 2016, then-Gov. Rick Scott removed dozens of murder cases from her control and handed them over to King. Since then, Ayala has decided she will seek the death penalty in cases where a death penalty review board consisting of her staff members recommends it. Ayala is not seeking reelection this year.
Reach Mike Synan at firstname.lastname@example.org.