Lights in the dark – La Madera prays for five victims

Spirit of small mountain community shines through tragedy

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La Madera, N.M. - The people of a small Northern New Mexico mountain town lit candles outside a hilltop morada Saturday evening (June 17) as the sun set in a garnet sky. They had gathered just a few miles west of where three family members were among five people killed in a string of shootings across Taos and Rio Arriba counties last week.

Inside the one-room chapel, surrounded by family members and carved santos, Carissa Herrera, a survivor of the violent killings in which her brother, Damian Herrera, 21, stands accused, recited the rosary and prayed for the victims: her mother, Maria Rosita "Brenda" Gallegos, 49; brother, Brendon Herrera, 20; stepfather, Max Trujillo Sr., 55; Michael Alan Kyte, of Tres Piedras; and Manuel Serrano, of Abiquiú.

More than 100 relatives, friends and neighbors crowded around the doorway of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Oratorio del Llanito. Some said they had not returned to their home in this high mountain valley for many years. To an observer, the hushed crowd seemed to exude a quiet strength that cut straight through all the anger and hasty assumptions that have circulated in the aftermath of the shootings.

Those far removed from the events have postulated over the past few days as to what may have motivated Damian Herrera to shoot and kill three family members and two men, who police say he never met. Some have claimed he must have been a drug user, that a once-dormant mental illness may have surfaced or that he simply became enraged over an argument.

But no motive has been established, and there seemed to be no such speculation among those closest to the tragedy – only a desire to remember the victims and support the family and friends they left behind.

"We've been praying straight through for about an hour and a half," said Ruby Medina, 70, one of Gallegos' many cousins who had come to pay their respects. "They were all very good people, and we're all their family. Everyone in this community is very united. You can tell just from being here."

Kayla Alire, who also was raised in La Madera, said she grew up around the family and had gone to Mesa Vista High School with Damian Herrera and his brother. "I was best friends with their sister and knew the boys," Alire said. "Damian was always with his brother. They were very respectful, good kids. The whole community is just in shock that this happened."

Carissa Herrera emerged from the chapel just after 9 p.m., tears streaming down her face and family members propping her up as they approached the candlelight vigil.

She knelt at one of the candles as a close friend of the family, Mariano Trujillo, led a prayer with those gathered: "This time of tragedy leaves us dumbfounded, it leaves us in shock – and that leaves us with many questions. We don't know why this happened. And these types of things affect all of us, all of Northern New Mexico, really. Our little community here, we're all so interconnected that it's hard for us all not to feel this. We don't know why this happened, but it's through our togetherness, through our prayers that we will get through this."

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