CA Man Freed After Murder Charges Dropped

Published February 5, 2012 2:00AM (EST)

YORBA LINDA, Calif. (AP) — A 24-year-old jailed for more than three months in the deaths of his mother and brother was a free man Saturday after prosecutors said they would instead charge a high school friend accused in a string of serial killings. But the previously accused man now faces a hearing on whether he should be allowed to remain in the U.S. because he is suspected of being in the country illegally.

Eder Herrera, a Mexico citizen, was released from jail Friday night and placed briefly in the custody of immigration officials after forensic analysis showed a spot found in his vehicle that appeared to be blood turned out not to be, and authorities encountered DNA evidence linking Herrera's former schoolmate Itzcoatl Ocampo to the gory October stabbing deaths.

Prosecutors in suburban Orange County plan to charge Ocampo, a 23-year-old former Marine, with the murders of Herrera's 34-year-old brother Juan and 53-year-old mother Raquel Estrada in the family's rented three-bedroom house on a quiet residential cul-de-sac in upscale Yorba Linda.

Ocampo already is charged with murdering four homeless men in a killing spree in December and January that terrorized a county better known as the home to Disneyland and prompted police to fan out and urge people to seek shelter indoors. He is expected to be arraigned on the new charges Monday.

"We no longer have sufficient evidence to hold Mr. Herrera in custody," Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said in prepared remarks late Friday.

Immigration officials said Herrera told them he entered the country illegally but has no criminal record aside from the dismissed charges.

Herrera was released on his own recognizance and will be sent to an immigration judge for a hearing, Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement.

It wasn't immediately clear what relationship may have existed between Ocampo and Herrera's family. The two men were friends and both graduated from Esperanza High School.

Ocampo's family knew Herrera, who stayed with them for two weeks several years ago, but hadn't seen him recently, said Ocampo's 18-year-old brother Mix.

The younger Ocampo said he had no idea someone he knew might have been involved in the October slayings just a mile from his home until he found a newspaper article about Herrera's arrest among his elder brother's belongings once his brother had been taken to jail.

Herrera and his family had previously lived in Yorba Linda for many years but moved to the three-bedroom home last February, neighbors and people who knew the family said. The two sons worked together cleaning parking lots at night and the family seemed very close, they said.

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas had not completely absolved Herrera from any potential responsibility in the case.

"At this point we have not conclusively eliminated Mr. Herrera as a suspect in the case," Rackauckas said.

Rackauckas said Herrera spent the night of the killings driving around with a friend and passed by the crime scene and did not want to stop and check on his family.

A witness had identified a person he believed to be Herrera as dragging something from the front door threshold of the home into the house, Rackauckas said. Based on evidence at the scene, it appeared that Juan Herrera had attempted to escape out the front door before being dragged back inside by the killer.

Herrera's brother Juan was found stabbed more than 60 times, his body left in a hallway. His mother was stabbed more than 30 times, authorities said.

The stab wounds were similar to those suffered by the four homeless men bludgeoned to death in December and January. Each of the four men was stabbed more than 40 times with a weapon believed to be a 7-inch, fixed-blade, military-type knife, authorities said.

Ocampo was arrested last month with blood on his face and hands after a fourth homeless man was killed, prosecutors said. He was charged with four counts of first-degree murder and the special circumstances of multiple victims and lying in wait.

"This case has now expanded from murdering random, vulnerable strangers, to murdering people he knew," Rackauckas said. "It is chilling to know, that these murders took place two months before the murders of four homeless men began."

A message left for Ocampo's attorney Randall Longwith was not immediately returned Saturday.

James Patrick McGillivray, 53, was stabbed Dec. 20 near a shopping center in Placentia; Lloyd Middaugh, 42, was found Dec. 28 near a riverbed trail in Anaheim; Paulus Smit, 57, was stabbed to death outside a Yorba Linda library on Dec. 30; and John Berry, 64, was stabbed to death outside a fast-food restaurant on Jan. 13, the day Ocampo was arrested after authorities said a witness helped chase him down.

By Salon Staff

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