Trial of man accused in five killings set to begin

Damian Herrera, right, sits with his attorney Michael Rosenfeld at a September 2018 hearing in Santa Fe. Herrera, who is accused of killing five people in 2017, goes on trial Monday for four of those deaths. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Residents of the small Rio Arriba County community of La Madera were rocked in June 2017 by the arrest of one of their neighbors, who police said had gone on a shooting rampage that left five people dead.

Damian Herrera, 25, is slated to go on trial this week for four of those homicides, including those of his brother, mother and stepfather, and a fourth killing in Abiquiú.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin Monday in 1st Judicial District Court in Santa Fe. He is charged with four counts of first-degree murder, unlawful taking of a motor vehicle, a fourth-degree felony, and other charges. The trial is scheduled to last through Aug. 20.

Herrera allegedly shot his mother in the head while she held her hands up and pleaded for her life, a witness told an investigator on the day of the killings.

The five-hour rampage began about 3 p.m. Jan. 15, 2017, at the family’s home in La Madera, prosecutors allege.

There, Herrera allegedly shot his mother, Maria Rosita Gallegos, known as “Brenda,” 49; Max Trujillo Sr., 55, Herrera’s stepfather; and his brother, Brendon Herrera, 20, a student at University of New Mexico Taos.

Trujillo and Brendon Herrera died at the scene. Gallegos died of her injuries the following day.

Scuffling for a gun

Herrera’s sister, Carissa Herrera, told an investigator the day of the killings that she came out of the family’s home after she heard three or four gunshots outside, according to a criminal complaint filed by a Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s deputy.

She saw Trujillo lying on the ground with wounds to his chest, the complaint said.

She then saw her brothers, Brendon and Damian Herrera, scuffling over a handgun in the moments before Brendon was shot in the neck, it said.

Damian Herrera’s mother was the third victim.

Carissa Herrera said she told the investigator she saw Damian Herrera shoot their mother in the head “while she was coming up from the ground with both her hands up … and pleading for Damian not to shoot her,” the complaint said.

Fearing for her own life, Carissa Herrera left the scene, according to the complaint.

Herrera fled La Madera in a Toyota pickup until it ran out of gas near Tierra Amarilla, police said.

The fourth shooting victim was a man who police say offered Herrera a ride.

Michael Alan Kyte, 61, an archaeologist who had recently retired from the U.S. Forest Service, was found shot to death about 5:15 p.m. on Forest Road 222 in far western Taos County, according to court filings.

Herrera drove Kyte’s 2012 Chevrolet Silverado on a round-about route to Abiquiú where prosecutors allege he shot and killed a fifth person – Manuel Serrano, 59, who was found dead about 8:15 p.m. at Bode’s Gas Station in Abiquiú.

Weapon recovered

Officers apprehended Herrera after he crashed during a police chase on U.S. 84 north of Española the night of the killings. A .38-caliber revolver was found in the vehicle, police said.

“None of the victims had a chance,” then-State Police Chief Pete Kassetas said in a news conference in Española the following day.

The accused will be tried separately in connection with Kyte’s killing in Taos County. Herrera is charged in 8th Judicial District Court with one count of first-degree murder and the unlawful taking of a motor vehicle. No trial date has been scheduled in that case.

The 1st Judicial District Court trial comes more than four years after the killings due to a variety of delays.

A procession follows the funerals in June 2017 for family members Max Trujillo Sr., Maria Rosita “Brenda” Gallegos and Brendon Herrera. Damian Herrera goes on trial this week, charged in their deaths and another. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Herrera’s defense attorney, Michael Rosenfield, said that Herrera’s trial, initially scheduled for January 2019, was canceled when 1st Judicial District Judge Jason Lidyard ordered a change of venue from Rio Arriba County to Santa Fe in November 2018.

Herrera’s attorneys had argued that he couldn’t get a fair trial in Rio Arriba County due to “public excitement” about the case, court records show.

A trial scheduled in July 2019 was canceled after Lidyard found that Herrera was not competent to stand trial. The judge committed Herrera to the New Mexico Behavioral Health Institute in Las Vegas.

In January 2020, officials at the Behavioral Health Institute issued a report finding that Herrera was competent to stand trial, according to news reports.

A trial scheduled in September 2020 was canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions, Rosenfield said.

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