Motive behind fatal shootings in Rio Arriba, Taos counties remains unknown

Five dead in hourslong rampage

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Whatever anger had been simmering in Damian Herrera’s head, it may have been something as simple as an argument over a truck that unleashed it, according to police reports, setting off a bloody spree Thursday that left five people dead across Northern New Mexico in one of the worst shootings in the region since a 1991 mass murder known as the Chimayó Massacre.

Investigators were still searching for a motive Friday, but a criminal complaint filed by the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office said a dispute between Herrera and his stepfather over a truck may have sparked the first shooting.

A 21-year-old college sophomore at The University of New Mexico-Taos, Herrera had no apparent criminal record. A former girlfriend described him as gentle and “sweet.” But the complaint states that Herrera, of Ojo Caliente, had been threatening to commit violence.

“Damian had expressed to family members and had made alarming statements that he intended to kill or hurt people for fun,” the document states.

The complaint, along with preliminary investigative reports put together by state police and sheriff’s deputies, depict a burst of rage that spread over several communities and left Herrera’s stepfather, mother and a brother dead, along with two apparent strangers, before police finally captured him Thursday night.

The bloody altercation started outside a home in La Madera, a mountain community about seven miles north of Ojo Caliente.

Earlier in the day, Herrera drove off in a Toyota truck he did not have permission to use, according to police reports. When Herrera returned to the home, his stepfather, Max Trujillo Sr., confronted him about the truck. The argument escalated, and Herrera opened fire with a handgun, hitting Trujillo in the chest as many as four times as they stood near the front door of the house, according to the reports.

As Trujillo, 55, lay on the ground bleeding, Herrera’s sister, Carissa, ran inside to call 911. Unable to find a phone, she went back outside to help Trujillo and watched in horror as Damian and another brother, Brendon Herrera, argued.

Brendon Herrera, 20, told his older brother to leave their stepfather alone, the reports state.

“He’s not dead yet!” Damian Herrera yelled before he and his brother got into a scuffle over a black handgun, described as a revolver with a short barrel. Authorities said Friday they believe  Herrera used a .38-caliber revolver, which investigators later recovered.

Damian Herrera pinned his younger brother against a carport wall and fired the gun, striking Brendon Herrera in the neck, according to the reports.

Their mother, Maria Rosita Gallegos, rushed to her wounded son’s side. She pleaded with Damian not to shoot her too, holding both hands up as she tried to stand up before he shot her in the head, the reports state.

Fearing for her life, Carissa Herrera ran to a neighbor’s house to call police as Damian Herrera fled in the Toyota truck that had been the source of the argument.

Mark Webb, a Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office sergeant, was patrolling the Chamita area near Hernández when the call came in a little after 3 p.m.

A shooting in La Madera. Three victims.

Webb raced to the scene about 25 miles away and pulled up to the home. An American flag fluttered high on a pole outside.

The first person Webb encountered was Mark Berry, who lives on the property. Berry told him two men were dead and a woman who had also been shot was still breathing.

As Webb and Deputy Chris Gurule walked into the grisly scene, they found Brendon Herrera lifeless on the ground. Next to him was Gallegos, who was gasping for air as blood poured from her head. She died the next day after being on life support. Trujillo lay nearby, covered in blood.

Carissa Herrera and other witnesses later told investigators that Damian Herrera, who was now nowhere to be found, had appeared to be calm and stared blankly during the shooting in La Madera, “as if he knew exactly what he was doing,” investigators wrote.

Around 4:45 that afternoon, Andrea Kyte arrived at her home in Tres Piedras, about a 30-minute drive north of La Madera. She found her husband, Michael Kyte, facedown and bleeding in the driveway. Frantic, she called 911.

“My husband! My husband is … I don’t know if he’s dead or not,” she told a police dispatcher, according to a recording of the 911 call.

“OK, ma’am, what is your address?” the dispatcher asked.

“Um. Um. I’m at. Um. Um. Oh, God. He’s been shot. Oh my God,” Andrea Kyte said.

Investigators believe Herrera killed Michael Kyte — who had recently retired as the west district archaeologist for Carson National Forest covering El Rito and Tres Piedras — and then stole Kyte’s 2012 black Chevrolet Silverado truck.

Authorities said Herrera traveled north into Antonito, Colo., then looped back into New Mexico through Chama and Tierra Amarilla before stopping at Bode’s General Store in Abiquiú, where surveillance video showed him appearing to get gas and wash the windows of the Silverado.

Less than a minute later, Manuel Serrano, 59, who was going to work at his job at the Georgia O’Keeffe house and studio, pulled up in a white Jeep to get gas. He had his back to Herrera, the police reports said. A few minutes later, video surveillance shows Serrano running around the Jeep before getting shot, though it’s not clear from police reports whether the video showed Herrera firing a weapon. The reports say Herrera then sped away in the Silverado, traveling south on U.S. 84.

Near mile marker 202, about 13 miles north of Española, Rio Arriba County sheriff’s deputies encountered Herrera on the highway and sped after him for about five miles before Herrera lost control of the stolen truck and crashed around 8:30 p.m., according to police reports.

Herrera climbed out of the wreckage and “rushed” two sheriff’s deputies trying to arrest him, according to the police reports. In a scuffle, a deputy’s gun inadvertently went off, though no one was injured. Police shocked Herrera with a Taser before taking him into custody.

In handcuffs in the back of a deputy’s patrol vehicle, Herrera admitted to all five shootings, according to the reports.

At a news conference Friday outside the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office in Española, New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas, First Judicial District Attorney Marco Serna and Sheriff James Lujan mourned the victims.

“None of these victims had a chance,” Kassetas said.

Lujan said the last time Northern New Mexico had experienced a similar episode was the 1991 massacre in Chimayó when Ricky Abeyta, a construction worker, went on a shooting rampage after his girlfriend moved out. Abeyta killed her and six others, including two police officers and a 6-month-old infant.

Herrera, who was briefly treated for injuries from the crash at Presbyterian Española Hospital, was arraigned Friday and was being held at the Rio Arriba County jail in Tierra Amarilla without bail. Deputy District Attorney Erik Scramlin filed a motion Friday asking a state district judge to hold Herrera in jail until trial because he is a danger to the community. A hearing on the motion has been scheduled for June 28.

“The Defendant has a complete disregard for human life and has demonstrated the horrific violence he is capable of,” Scramlin’s motion says. “He poses a significant danger to his relatives and the community at large.”

During a video arraignment, Herrera appeared bruised but calm when Rio Arriba Magistrate Court Judge Joseph Madrid asked him if he understood the charges he was facing. Lujan, whose deputies eventually apprehended Herrera, said Herrera didn’t look “fazed” by the shootings and seemed “emotionless.”

“That’s how he was last night pretty much,” Lujan said.

Contact Daniel J. Chacón at 986-3089 or dchacon@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @danieljchacon.

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