Felix Verdejo is prepared to fight in the courtroom in order to clear his name.
The former lightweight contender entered a plea of not guilty during a federal court hearing Tuesday morning in relation to the murder of Keishla Marlen Rodriguez Ortiz. Verdejo appeared via video conference, represented by a legal team who informed federal magistrate Camille Vélez Rivé of his former plea during the court session held in Hato Rey, Puerto Rico.
The magistrate declared that the boxer will remain in prison in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico and held without bail until his trial is set to begin. Verdejo faces federal charges of carjacking resulting in death, kidnapping resulting in death and killing of an unborn child, all of which are eligible for the death penalty if found guilty.
Verdejo also faces one count of carrying and discharging a firearm during and in relation to a violent crime. The charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison only if he is found guilty on any of the aforementioned crimes for which he is accused.
The case has dominated headlines in Puerto Rico ever since Rodriguez was initially declared missing on April 29. Rodriguez’s sister, Bereliz Nichole took to social media in a desperate plea to locate Rodriguez whose last form of contact was to visit Verdejo, with whom she had a years-long on-again, off-again love affair and was one month pregnant with their child.
Verdejo was declared a person of interest in what began as a missing persons case, though initially refusing to speak with authorities without an attorney present. The San Juan-bred boxer—who represented Puerto Rico in the 2012 London Olympics—met with authorities on the morning of April 30, though still refusing to fully cooperate.
Eliz Marie Santiago, Verdejo’s wife and the mother of their child was twice questioned by authorities. Details of the interview were never made public, other than her admitting to having knowledge of her husband’s years-long affair with Rodriguez.
The case was then turned over to the FBI, moving for a rescue mission to recovery after Rodriguez was presumed to be dead by that point. Those fears were realized on May 1, when her lifeless body was pulled from Laguna San Jose.
A detailed investigation report—aided by what reports indicate as a cooperating witness with first-hand knowledge of the case—revealed that Verdejo and an accomplice, Luis Antonio Cádiz-Martinez both intentionally killed Rodriguez and “committed the offense in an especially heinous, cruel, or depraved manner in that it involved serious physical abuse to the victim.”
The report indicated that Verdejo and Cadiz-Martinez initially met with Rodriguez on the morning of April 29, at which point the boxer punched her in the face and injected her with two separate street drugs. Rodriguez was then bound by wire and transported in Verdejo’s Dodge Durango to Teodoro Moscoso Bridge, with Cadiz-Martinez following them in Rodriguez’s Kia Forte. Video surveillance from the toll booth picked up the vehicles parked in the emergency lane, at which point Rodriguez’s body was deposited into the lagoon.
According to the investigation, Verdejo then shot at Rodriguez as she was thrown into the water. The act brought about the fourth charge against the boxer.
Cadiz-Martinez is due to appear before the federal magistrate at a separate hearing to be held Thursday afternoon.
Verdejo turned pro in 2012, signing with Top Rank and spending his entire pro career under the banner of the Las Vegas-based promotional outfit. A knockout loss in March 2018 was followed by a four-fight win streak, with talks of Verdejo challenging for a lightweight title had he beaten Japan’s Masayoshi Nakatani.
It didn’t work out that way, as Verdejo saw a sizeable lead—aided by two early knockdowns—disappear in a flash as he was dropped twice en route to a 9th round stoppage in their ESPN-televised thriller last December in Las Vegas.
The boxer remains under contract with Top Rank, though only through legal means. The company has since scrubbed his profile clean from its official website, nor has his image appeared in any subsequent fight promos particularly ahead of Nakatani’s upcoming June 26 lightweight clash versus former three-division titlist Vasiliy Lomachenko.
Other entities—such as Dodge Puerto Rico and music superstar Bad Bunny—have severed all ties with the boxer.
Despite the calls for Verdejo to receive the death penalty in relation to the heinous crimes, Rodriguez’s family has expressed a stance against capital punishment. Jose Rodriguez, Keishla’s father is on record calling for a guilty verdict instead hand down a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole “and for it to weigh on his conscience every day for the rest of his life.”
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox