Eder Herrera was in handcuffs hours after his mother and brother were stabbed to death in their Yorba Linda on Oct. 25, 2011.
Facing two charges of murder, the 24-year-old street sweeper maintained his innocence during the three months he spent behind bars.
Then, on Feb. 1, 2012, Itzcoatl Ocampo, a suspected serial killer charged with the deaths of four homeless men, told investigators he was also responsible for the deaths of Herrera’s family.
Ocampo described in detail how he snuck into the home with plans to kill the family. He told detectives he stabbed them multiple times with the same knife he used against the homeless men. He also had plans to wrap an extension cord around Eder Herrera’s neck, but Ocampo said the youngest member of the family walked out of the house before the bloodshed began.
More than two years after the deaths, and after charges against Herrera were dropped, but Herrera is wondering why police and prosecutors still consider him a suspect.
Itzcoatl Ocampo admitted killing a woman, her son and four homeless men before committing suicide. But Eder Herrera is still a suspect.
By SALVADOR HERNANDEZ / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER Published: Dec. 27, 2013
YORBA LINDA – His mother was dead.
So was Juan, his older brother. Now Eder Herrera sat in an interrogation room with handcuffs on his wrists. He was a suspect.
He leaned his body against the wall and cried.
The murders of his mother and brother on Oct. 25, 2011, were excruciatingly violent. Detectives believed the killer used a butter knife first, but dropped it after the metal bent when it was plunged into the body of Raquel Estrada, 53. The killer then used a 7-inch KA-Bar Bull Dozier knife to stab her in the neck and chest.
Juan Herrera, 34, was stabbed 50 times, probably after hearing his mother’s cries.
“With my hand on my heart, I could never betray my family like that,” a 24-year-old Eder Herrera told detectives in Brea Police Department headquarters, according to transcripts of the interview. “Never, never.”
What police didn’t know was this was only the beginning. While Herrera sat in county jail, four homeless men were stalked, ambushed and killed with the same 7-inch knife that had wiped out Herrera’s immediate family.
Itzcoatl Ocampo, a 23-year-old Marine, eventually confessed to killing the homeless men, according to testimony from the detective who interviewed him. He also told police he had killed Estrada and Juan Herrera, describing in detail how he snuck into their Yorba Linda home through a sliding door. Ocampo and Eder Herrera had been high school friends, and Ocampo told detectives he killed the mother and son because they disrespected him.
Herrera was set free, the charges against dropped.
Ocampo committed suicide in his jail cell last month. Prosecutors moved last week to dismiss the case. But Herrera has officially remained a suspect in his family’s killings. He had been released, prosecutors said, because there just wasn’t enough evidence to hold him.
Herrera has maintained his innocence and has since hired an attorney to file a federal suit against the city of Brea and its police force. He’s confused, he said in a recent interview, how he would remain a suspect despite the detailed confession Ocampo gave before his death.
Lt. Darrin Devereux, spokesman for the Brea Police Department, said the department could not comment on the case because of pending litigation.
REVIEWING THE REPORTS
To piece together the details of the police investigation, the Orange County Register reviewed hundreds of pages of police reports from detectives, officers, grand jury testimony, court documents and correspondence.
Estrada and her two sons moved to California from Veracruz, Mexico, in 1994, when Eder Herrera was 7 years old.
She worked cleaning houses and the two brothers began working as street sweepers when they were older.
She was old-fashioned, Herrera said, and would get upset when the two siblings stayed out late. She wanted them to settle down, get married and give her grandchildren.
Then at 11:28 p.m. on Oct. 25, 2011, police got a 911 call about a disturbance at the family’s Trix Circle home. The caller identified himself as a neighbor, but police later traced the call to a payphone near a Stater Bros. about a mile away from the house.
Inside, police found a bloody crime scene and the bodies of Juan Herrera and Estrada. Eder Herrera was missing.
His car was found by police about 9 miles away from the scene, outside a friend’s home, where Herrera said he spent the night, according to police reports.
John Burton, a Pasadena attorney who represents Eder Herrera, claims the investigation by Brea police was narrow from the beginning, and that detectives quickly zeroed in on Herrera without considering other possibilities.
“The universe of the crime scene consisted of one person – Eder,” Burton said. “Everything else clamped down, and from that point forward it was, ‘We’re going to prove Eder Herrera did this.’ ”
According to the Probable Cause Declaration written by Brea police Detective Philip Rodriguez, several details pointed toward Herrera.
A neighbor placed Eder Herrera at the scene of the killings, the declaration stated. The neighbor said he heard cries for help, then saw someone pulling what looked like a couch back into the house.
That couch, officials believed, had been Juan Herrera’s body being dragged back into the home.
Detectives also had suspicions about Herrera’s alibi, according to the declaration.
“Eder (Herrera) also said that he had gone to his friend’s residence at 2030 hours (8:30 p.m.). Later we would learn this was not true,” Rodriguez wrote.
Herrera told police he and his friend had been headed to his Yorba Linda home after midnight that night, but drove back to his friend’s house after they saw police in front of Herrera’s home, a fact officers found suspicious, according to police reports and Herrera’s interview with police.
Back in the interrogation room, Herrera tried to explain. He is undocumented and had been smoking pot with his friend in the car, he told detectives. Though police blocked the street to his house, he never thought it would be for a murder in his house, and stopping could mean revealing his and his family’s undocumented status.
Detectives pressed. If he had nothing to do with it, they asked Herrera, who could have killed his family?
“These types of homicides, especially in Yorba Linda – it’s not … it’s not some stranger, weird person who comes into a house and kills people,” Rodriguez told Herrera. “And everything that I have so far points to you, everything.”
“He (Eder Herrera) has got an alibi from the get-go,” Burton said, pointing to the friend who drove with Herrera that night.
What time the murders took place that night is not immediately clear, but through police reports and testimony, a timeline begins to emerge.
According to transcripts of the interview, Herrera told Rodriguez he left the Trix Circle house sometime between 8 and 8:10 p.m. The testimony of Herrera’s friend seems to back that timeframe, telling an officer in a separate interview it was about 8:40 p.m. when he and his roommate returned from a marijuana dispensary and Herrera walked up to his car.
According to grand jury testimony, Ocampo also told detectives he left his home at about 8 p.m. on the night of the killings, and saw Herrera leaving the home. Instead of waiting for him to return, Ocampo told the detective he decided that killing two people would be easier than three.
Rodriguez told the grand jury that Herrera’s neighbor heard cries for help and then someone dragging what he believed to be a couch into the house. “Right around the time that we believe the homicides would have occurred,” he said.
Asked what time Rodriguez believed the homicides occurred, he answered, “Approximately 8:00 o’clock at night.”
In the Probable Cause Declaration filled out by Rodriguez the day after the murders, however, Rodriguez wrote that the neighbor heard the screams and saw someone dragging the couch, “At approx 2100 – 2130 hours,” or 9 to 9:30 p.m.
Herrera said he and his friend drove out to a restaurant in Norco, taking the long route and smoking pot on the way.
Surveillance video from a Denny’s restaurant showed the two friends arrived there at 10:06 p.m., and ate sundaes until 10:48 p.m.
At 11:28 p.m., police received the 911 call about a disturbance in the house.
Later in the investigation, a homicide detective from another agency cast doubt on the neighbor’s claim that Eder Herrera was at the house at the time of the murder, according to grand jury testimony.
“The distance is approximately 40 yards away. There were no external lights on at the time,” Anaheim police Detective Daron Wyatt testified before the grand jury about the witness account.
“There was absolutely no way to make a positive facial identification in those conditions. “
The witness’s description of the person dragging a couch, Wyatt said, resembled Ocampo more than Herrera.
A WATCHED MAN
After Herrera was released, investigators kept tabs on him.
In an interview at his attorney’s office, Herrera said he was followed by law enforcement.
Court records also show investigators tapped Herrera’s phone about two months after he was released from jail. A judge allowed investigators to tap the phones for 30 days, but officials stopped less than two weeks later.
Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for the District Attorney’s Office, said the case remains open and Herrera remains a suspect.
She declined to comment in further detail, saying the case is still under investigation.
“I was in jail for something I didn’t do,” Herrera said.
Herrera lives in Riverside and continues to work as a street sweeper. He’s hoping the civil case can move forward now that Ocampo’s criminal case won’t go to court.
Burton still has several questions.
For example, he says DNA evidence was tested at the crime scene, but he has not seen any of the results. If there was DNA or blood from someone other than Eder Herrera and his family, it could have pointed investigators to another suspect.
The District Attorney’s Office and the Brea Police Department have denied most of his requests for information citing the ongoing criminal investigation.
With Ocampo’s criminal case gone, Herrera said his civil case is the only means remaining for him to get answers.
During the first weeks of his incarceration, Herrera said, he was placed in isolation and prevented from receiving phone calls or visits. The most tormenting part, he said, was not learning about the services for his mother and brother until after they took place.
After a few weeks in jail, he stopped telling inmates he was innocent, he said, because they would respond with a condescending, “Yeah, me too.”
He also struggles with thoughts of his high school friend, the man who confessed to murdering his family.
Herrera said he has fond memories of his friendship with Ocampo, formed when they met in a computing class in their junior year of high school.
“Ocampo was a nice guy, he was,” Herrera said. “That’s why I liked him as a friend.”
The two grew apart when Ocampo joined the Marines, Herrera said, but they ran into each other in early 2011, months before the violent killings.
Herrera had just moved from Moreno Valley, he said.
Ocampo didn’t know Herrera’s family had recently moved a short walk away from his Yorba Linda house.
Herrera told Ocampo to follow him, and he’d show him the new home on Trix Circle.
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