Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal
LA MADERA – Residents of the small Rio Arriba County community of La Madera say they never would have suspected that one of their neighbors could go on a shooting rampage, leaving five people dead.
“It’s just a very tragic situation, because they were good people and good neighbors,” said 77-year-old Carol Hite, who lives across the street from where police say 21-year-old Damian Herrera shot his stepfather and brother to death and critically injured his mother, who later died at a hospital.
“They weren’t people that were always causing trouble or anything like that,” Hite said. “I think I still can’t quite wrap my head around that it actually happened.”
Police apprehended Herrera after he crashed a stolen truck during a police chase north of Española on Thursday night.
But before he was captured, police said, Herrera killed two other people he encountered at random – an archaeologist who gave him a ride near Tres Piedras and a man who just happened to stop for gas at an Abiquiu store the same time Herrera did.
“None of the victims had a chance,” State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said at an afternoon news conference in Española.
First Judicial District Attorney Marco Serna in Santa Fe said the killings “rocked northern New Mexico to its core.”
Herrera’s family members who were shot in La Madera on Thursday afternoon were identified as Maria Rosita Gallegos, known as “Brenda,” 49; welder Max Trujillo Sr., 55; and Brendon Herrera, 20, a student at UNM-Taos who worked at the Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort.
Trujillo and Brendon Herrera died at the scene. Gallegos was on life support but died late Friday afternoon, according to Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan.
After the shootings in La Madera, police said, Damian Herrera, who doesn’t have a criminal record, fled in a pickup truck and next killed Michael Kyte of Tres Piedras.
Kyte was a recently retired U.S. Forest Service archaeologist who was giving Herrera a ride after he ran out of gas, authorities say. Police were called to the scene in Tres Piedras at 5:45 p.m.
Sheriff Lujan said Kyte was a “victim of circumstance.”
Herrera stole Kyte’s truck and took a wayward path to his next killing, according to what police said he told them.
He drove north from Tres Piedras to Antonito, Colo., then circled back through Chama south to Abiquiu. There, police said, Herrera shot Manuel Serrano, 59, of Youngsville, a small community west of Abiquiu, about 8:15 p.m.
Surveillance video described in the criminal complaint charging Herrera indicates that Serrano and Herrera were both getting gas at pumps outside the Abiquiu store. But it’s unclear from the complaint why Herrera shot Serrano, who worked in security at the nearby Georgia O’Keeffe Home and Studio.
Herrera was driving south on U.S 84 north of Española when Rio Arriba deputies picked up his trail and initiated a pursuit.
A State Police official said he was driving too fast for a curve, veered into oncoming traffic and then swerved to avoid the cruiser of a State Police officer responding to the Abiquiú shooting. Herrera overcorrected and crashed into a tree about 8:30 p.m.
State Police said Herrera got out of the truck, ran toward deputies and started a fight, trying to disarm a deputy. At some point in the struggle, the deputy’s gun went off, according to the State Police account.
After a second deputy used a Taser on Herrera, he was brought under control and arrested.
Police said the apparent murder weapon, a .38-caliber revolver, was found in the stolen truck.
Sheriff Lujan said Herrera was also armed with a large hunting knife when he charged deputies.
Authorities don’t have a motive for the shooting of family members. The court complaint says that earlier Thursday, Damian Herrera had taken a family pickup truck without permission. When he returned, he was confronted by Trujillo.
“It all went downhill from there,” Lujan said.
Jimmy Ortega, who lives near where the family members were shot, said Gallegos’ daughter, Carissa, about 16 years old, witnessed the shootings and ran to his house to call 911. Ortega wasn’t home but said his wife was.
“When they were small, they were good kids, and the best of the two was Brendon,” Ortega said. “He was a hard worker. Anyone that needed help cutting weeds, doing whatever, he was willing to do it – and not for pay. That’s the kind of guy he was.”
Ortega said he hadn’t seen Damian in awhile, and he had heard that he may have recently lost his job at the Ojo Caliente spa.
“I don’t know what happened,” Ortega said. “He just snapped. To be able to kill your mom and your brother. … La Madera will not be the same. You hear these stories in faraway places, but when it happens close to home it hurts.”
Herrera faces five open counts of first-degree murder.
Looking haggard and bruised, he appeared from the Rio Arriba County jail in Tierra Amarilla by video for arraignment Friday morning in Española Magistrate Court. He was ordered held without bail.
The criminal complaint describes the start of the shootings:
When deputies were called to La Madera about 3:30 p.m., they found Herrera’s sister, Carissa. She said she was inside the home with Brendon and her mother when she heard three or four gunshots outside. She followed the others outside and saw Trujillo on the ground in front of the house with wounds in his chest.
She went back inside to call 911 but couldn’t find the phone, then tried administering CPR to Trujillo.
Carissa Herrera said she saw Brendon and Damian struggling over possession of a handgun. She said Damian had Brendon pinned against a wall by the carport and saw Damian shoot his brother in the neck. He then shot his mother as she came to Brendon’s aid. The report says Damian shot his mother in the head while she pleaded with her son not to shoot her.
Deputies found a rifle on a couch and discovered that the glass to a gun locker in the master bedroom had been shattered.
Other people were on or near the property at the time of the shootings.
Witnesses said that Damian Herrera appeared to be calm and ” ‘blank stared,’ as if he knew exactly what he was doing,” according to the report.
“It was learned that Damian had expressed to family members and had made alarming statements that he intended to kill and hurt people for fun,” the report said.
Carrie Leven, a Forest Service archaeologist in the Carson National Forest’s Questa Ranger District, posted about her colleague Kyte’s death on Facebook.
“In shock this morning, first hearing the news of a deadly shooting spree not far from here, and then reading that dear Michael Kyte, a friend and recently retired co-worker from Tres Piedras Ranger District, is one of those murdered. ??!!! This is heartbreaking and insane. Prayers for Michael’s family, friends, and co-workers and all the families affected by this senseless tragedy.”
Numerous friends and colleagues weighed in with comments on Leven’s post.
“Michael was a great archaeologist and such fun to work with. How sad. My thoughts are with his family,” said one.
In a phone interview, Leven said she met Kyte about 10 years ago when he came to work as an archaeologist at the Tres Piedras Ranger District. “He was a really good guy – a caring husband and family man,” she said. “He was caring and generous with his time.”
Serrano, the man killed in Abiquiu, had been involved with the home of O’Keeffe, since the internationally known modern art master lived at the house, said Micaela Hester, spokeswoman for the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. “We’re shocked and sad,” she said. “He was really well-regarded. … We miss him.”