Texas man set for execution turns to God, says he's a changed man and 'deeply sorry'


A death row inmate set for execution in Texas this week says he is not the same man he was when he raped and killed an 18-year-old woman in 2001.

Ramiro Gonzales, 41, is set to be executed Wednesday for the death of 18-year-old Bridget Townsend, who was kidnapped, raped and fatally shot on Jan. 14, 2001, at a ranch in Bandera, a small town in Texas Hill Country about 40 miles northwest of San Antonio.

If the execution goes forward, Gonzales will be the second inmate put to death in Texas this year and the eighth in the nation.

Gonzales was previously scheduled for execution on July 13, 2022, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals halted it two days before it was set to occur, citing a state expert who said he gave incorrect testimony at trial.

Now with his execution back on the calendar, Gonzales has been filing a flurry of appeals and a petition for clemency, asking Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to grant a lesser penalty or more time. Abbott, who has referred to the death penalty as "Texas justice," has overseen the execution of 73 inmates since he took office in 2015 and granted clemency in one case.

As execution day approaches, USA TODAY is looking back at Gonzales' crime and what led him down a path that ended in a young woman's horrific death.

'Deep descent into addiction' began after beloved aunt's death

Gonzales endured bouts of physical and sexual abuse throughout his childhood, often at the hands of relatives, and was the epitome of an “unwanted child," clinical psychologist Kate Porterfield says in a clemency video submitted to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles on June 4.

Given up by his mother at birth, Gonzales grew up in the care of his grandparents in a small cinderblock house near Bandera, where his grandfather worked as a ranch hand. With both grandparents working long hours, Gonzales was typically left alone and unsupervised, according to the video.

Loretta Gonzales, an aunt, quickly became one of Gonzales' only sources of comfort in an otherwise “extraordinarily traumatic” environment, with events that were “some of the most toxically stressful that a child can experience,” Porterfield said.

"My Aunt Loretta … she’s the reason why I started doing better in school," Gonzales said in the video. "She’s the reason why I did homework. She’s the reason why I played sports."

When Loretta was killed by a drunk driver in May 1998, things began to unravel for Gonzales.

“Loretta’s death plunged Ramiro into inconsolable grief," his clemency petition says. "(He was) despondent and completely unequipped to deal with the loss, turning to drugs to numb his pain," the clemency petition states.

A young Ramiro Gonzales pictured at his Aunt Loretta's wedding.
A young Ramiro Gonzales pictured at his Aunt Loretta's wedding.

'Deep descent into addiction' contributed to events that unfolded

What started out as self-medication rapidly became full-blown addiction to drugs and alcohol in the years that followed, leading Ramiro Gonzales to “steal and forge checks” to finance the addiction. He also began to run errands for Joe Leal, his drug dealer, to get more drugs and pay off his debts, according to the clemency petition.

Gonzales’ “deep descent into addiction” led up to Jan. 14, 2001, the day he kidnapped, raped and killed Townsend, who was in a relationship with Leal. Gonzales went to Leal's house to get more drugs but only Townsend was there, according to court documents.

After Gonzales came in and stole some cash, Townsend started to call Leal. That's when Gonzales “pushed her, dragged her into the bedroom, and tied her hands and feet with some nylon rope he had found in the closet,” according to court documents He then drove her to his grandfather's ranch, where he raped and shot her, and dumped her body, according to court records.

Townsend's disappearance remained unsolved for nearly two years only after Gonzales decided to confess to the murder, leading authorities to her remains. At the time Gonzales was serving a life sentence for the rape and kidnapping of another woman, a crime that happened more than a year after Townsend was killed.

“At the time, Ramiro was gripped by a serious addiction rooted in his exposure to drugs while still in the womb, compounded by the trauma and neglect that marked his childhood,” according to his clemency petition.

State, victim's family reject Ramiro Gonzales' explanations

Gonzales' arguments haven't swayed neither Texas authorities nor Townsend's still-grieving family.

"Despite admitting his guilt in both cases, Gonzales continued to deny his responsibility for these vile crimes, saying, in one case, he enjoyed the crime, and in the other that it was consensual," William Stephens, former director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, wrote in a court filing.

Patricia Townsend, Bridget Townsend's mother, told USA TODAY that Gonzales' execution will be a "joyful occasion" for her and her family, who have been waiting so long for justice.

“She was a beautiful person who loved life and loved people," she said. "He doesn't deserve mercy ... And his childhood should not have anything to do with it. I know a lot of people that had a hard childhood. You shouldn’t feel sorry for him because of that. He made his choice."

A portrait of Bridget Townsend, a young woman from Texas who was brutally killed in January 2001.
A portrait of Bridget Townsend, a young woman from Texas who was brutally killed in January 2001.

Ramiro Gonzales says he's undergone spiritual transformation

Gonzales says his life changed the night a preacher handed him a Bible while he was behind bars awaiting trial for Townsend's murder.

“I stayed awake reading through this Bible ... A couple days after that, everything in me wanted God,” Gonzales says in the clemency video. “The conviction was so overwhelming that I kneeled down and prayed that God forgive me for everything.”

Gonzales said he quickly realized that he "had to follow God."

"I just know that I had to give my life to God. And that I needed him to help me get through,” Gonzales says in the video.

He said that he has become the person he always wanted to be, “following a righteous path and working to better the lives of those around him” by serving God.

“From the men in his faith-based group, to those who listen to him preach, to correctional officers who stop by his cell for comfort, to his friends and pen pals, Ramiro is a shining example of the redemptive power of God’s grace, and the ripple effect that power has throughout the world,” the clemency petition says. “Ramiro helps lead people to God, and through God’s power they are transformed.”

In 2022, Gonzales offered to donate a kidney in an attempt to “atone for the life he took." The Texas Department of Criminal Justice rejected the request, saying it could introduce an “uncertain timeline" and interfere with the execution, according to a court filing.

Ramiro Gonzales, 41, says he is not the same troubled kid convicted for the murder of 18-year-old Bridget Townsend in September 2006. He has spent time working to atone for the life he took by dedicating his life to serving God.
Ramiro Gonzales, 41, says he is not the same troubled kid convicted for the murder of 18-year-old Bridget Townsend in September 2006. He has spent time working to atone for the life he took by dedicating his life to serving God.

Gonzales apologizes to Bridget Townsend's family

In 2022, Gonzales wrote a letter to Townsend's family, saying that his apologies "cannot even begin to bring you peace of mind and healing."

"But I feel that I should still tell you how sorry I am for the pain and anguish you have suffered because of my actions,” Gonzales wrote, according to the clemency petition. “I am sorry, deeply sorry, that I took what was so precious to you ... I know there’s nothing I can do or say to make it better."

In a recent interview with the Marshall Project, Gonzales said he plans to use his last words before death apologizing more to Townsend's family, who can choose to witness him die.

"I pray God will give me the words, and I hope it’s sincere enough for them to at least accept the apology," Gonzales told the Marshall Project. "I don’t know that there will be any closure for them in watching me die, but I hope it’s enough to help them begin a journey."

Contributing: Amanda Lee Myers

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Texas man set to be executed says he's changed since killing teen girl