Amid retirement, longtime prosecutor looks back on illustrious law career

After he decided once and for all he was going to retire from the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office, Joseph Orendain began to grow out his facial hair. With no trials on the horizon, his clipped moustache grew into a handlebar resembling his father’s.

Orendain, 55, retired Friday after 29 years as an assistant district attorney with the DA’s office. While many attorneys in the county have passed through the office at the start of their careers, few have stayed as long as Orendain and made a career out of being a prosecutor.

He never intended to stay with the DA’s office for nearly three decades. Rather, it was simply the first job offer Orendain got after graduating from The University of Houston Law Center.

“I thought I would work two years at it, gain some confidence in the courtroom, and then go work with my brother’s firm because by then I would show that I’m capable of doing the work,” Orendain said in an interview Thursday.

But he never joined his older brother, Abel Orendain, at the firm where he worked, not even when Abel opened his own firm years later.

“I said, ‘Well, I’ve already got 13 years here (with the DA’s office). I have some capital murder guys I want to try. I’m still working on these gang people. So maybe when I hit 20 (years).’ After I hit 20, I said, ‘Well maybe when I hit 25,’” Orendain said.

The gang cases were those connected to the Tri City Bombers-initiated massacre in Edinburg that left six people dead in 2003. Orendain and his trial partner Cregg Thompson were honored by the Association of Government Attorneys in Capital Litigation Awards for their work prosecuting those cases, receiving an award for Outstanding Advocacy in Capital and Complex Homicide Cases (2005-06), the only attorneys from the DA’s office ever to do so.

In 2006, Orendain made history by successfully prosecuting the first human trafficking case in the nation using a state penal code.

He and Thompson achieved another milestone for the county in 2017: They tried the longest trial in recent memory when they secured a guilty conviction against Monica Melissa Patterson for the capital murder of a 96-year-old man who they say she killed for his money. The trial lasted six weeks.

Thompson, who joined the DA’s office only a few months after Orendain, spent many late nights and weekends working with him and described his colleague as a tireless worker.

“(Orendain) is available to everybody and he has answers for everything,” Thompson said. “He has all that experience and the ability to remember it and apply it to other situations. It’s the kind of thing where you can go into his office and say, ‘Hey, what do you think of this or that and he always has an answer.’”

Even after 29 years — and countless trials — Orendain still remembers the names of all the victims and the details, particularly the gruesome ones, for a person who said he was “never into crime” before taking the job.

His ability to recall names, dates and facts has more to do with a good memory. It speaks to the connection he has to the cases and to the work, and Orendain’s commitment to seeing that justice is done. His emotions are evident when recalling particularly hard cases, such as sex crimes or murders of children.

“His dad fought for justice. His family does the same. So does Joseph,” Thompson said via text message in a succinct sentiment.

Photographs of Orendain’s father, Antonio Orendain, sporting a moustache as infamous as his black hat, adorned the walls of his office.

A koozie with a mustache of Joseph Orendian sits above his desk on Thursday, Feb.28, 2019 in Edinburg. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

As the youngest of five siblings, growing up Joseph Orendain accompanied his father everywhere as his mother, who died in 1985, worked to support their family. For Orendain, this meant following his father to strikes and marches as part of the fight for farm workers’ rights in Texas and across the country.

Antonio Orendain, who died in 2016, was the original secretary/treasurer of the United Farm Workers Union in California and the founder of the Texas Farm Workers Union.

At age 14, Joseph Orendain, along with more than a hundred others, marched from the Rio Grande Valley to Washington, D.C. for the Texas Farm Workers March for Human Rights to call for minimum wage provisions for farm workers and the ability to unionize.

When he was 12, he and his father were arrested near Odessa during a strike. Because the city didn’t have a juvenile detention center, police had to let him go.

“Growing up in the civil rights movement and seeing all the injustice that was taking place, you needed lawyers that would be willing to represent people and organizations that were being faced with injustice,” Orendain said. Having been exposed to the labor union’s lawyers motivated four of his five siblings to become lawyers, he added.

Unlike their father, who dropped out of school in sixth grade, Antonio Orendain’s children graduated from the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo school district and went to elite schools — a testament to the work ethic and emphasis on education he instilled in them.

“My dad was always telling us, ‘I don’t have anything to give you. And so you’ve got to get an education. You get an education and you can do anything you want,’” Orendain said.

While he could have earned significantly more as a private attorney, he wasn’t driven by money. Rather, it was his commitment to public service that kept him prosecuting cases for three decades.

Joseph Orendain is seen on Thursday, Feb. 28, 2019 in Edinburg. (Delcia Lopez | dlopez@themonitor.com)

To make law enforcement’s work count, there has to be someone in the courtroom to represent the work they do and follow a case through from the initial investigation to the trial, Orendain said.

“I saw it as protecting my community, not by being on the front line, but by being in the courtroom, doing the best and doing what justice is,” he said, adding that in all 29 years, he never prosecuted a case he didn’t believe in.

Abel Orendain described his younger brother as “the best prosecutor” he’s seen in his own 35 years of practicing law.

“He’s tried all the hard and difficult cases and tried them with passion, and he didn’t win them for himself; he won them for the victims,” Abel Orendain said, adding, “My dad gave us a strong sense of truth and justice and serving people and that’s really what (Joseph) has done — served the community selflessly … he put everyone first.”

Father and sons would talk about Joseph’s cases when they got together on the weekends.

“He loved the way Joseph had a booming voice (in the courtroom) … My dad was very impressed with his work and he would love to go and watch him and he was so proud of him … My mom didn’t get the opportunity to see him but she would have been impressed,” Abel Orendain said.

Joseph Orendain said one of the best compliments he received during his career came when he was speaking to a juror after a guilty verdict: “One of the jurors looked at me and said, “Qué eres tú de Antonio Orendain,’ and I said, ‘That’s my dad,’ and he said, in Spanish, ‘I knew it! You talk just like he does.’”

It was Orendain’s passion for the job that made state District Judge Noe Gonzalez ask for him to be assigned to his courtroom when state District Judge Fernando Mancias — whose courtroom Orendain worked in — retired.

Gonzalez described Orendain as someone who always came to court prepared and someone who, when they take on a responsibility, doesn’t do so lightly.

For these reasons, the judge said he managed to convince Orendain not to retire years earlier and Orendain tried cases before him for more than a dozen years.

“It was for a purely selfish reason,” Gonzalez said, “because he was and is a dedicated person to his profession and I wanted him to be part of the 370th (District Court). I wanted people to be prepared and it has paid off all these years since we’ve gotten a lot of work done.”

Orendain isn’t sure what’s next.

The offer to join his brother’s law firm is still on the table.

And Orendain is considering going into teaching, possibly with South Texas College’s criminal justice program.

But first, he wants to focus on spending time with family and traveling.

And although he no longer occupies an office in the DA’s Office, Assistant District Attorney Lauren Sepulveda, who considers him a mentor, knows he’ll still pick up the phone if any of his former colleagues have a question.

His three decades with the office have also inspired younger attorneys, like Sepulveda, 33, to stick with the profession.

“To see him and Murray Moore and Cregg Thompson, they’re what we call ‘lifers’ in our office — they love the job and do this for so long — it inspires me,” she said. “To see these great examples of people sticking around and trying these cases, I know a couple of us really want to be like them.”