'They were inseparable'

Shock, dismay over Thursday's fatal shootings in La Madera

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In selfies posted on his Facebook page, Damian Herrera is seen smiling and looking cheerful - starkly different from the portrait emerging from police who say he shot to death three members of his family and two strangers in a burst of violence Thursday.

Before that day, court records show Herrera had only minor brushes with police - a speeding ticket, issued in April, and an infraction for driving with an expired vehicle registration and without proof of insurance in 2015, which was later dismissed.

And what was known of the 21-year-old seemed drastically at odds with what Rio Arriba County sheriff's investigators wrote in a criminal complaint: that he had told family members he intended to kill people for fun.

After what police say was a bloody flight spanning Taos and Rio Arriba counties Thursday night, Herrera led officers on a brief high-speed chase, crashed a stolen truck, then was tased after a scuffle and arrested. Afterward, police said, he admitted to shootings that left five people - including his younger brother Brendon Herrera and stepfather Max Trujillo Sr. - dead.

He also shot his mother, Maria Rosita Gallegos, in the head, according to the preliminary investigative reports of state police and sheriff's deputies. Gallegos died later Friday, according to Rio Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan.

Also killed were Michael Kyte, a recently retired Carson National Forest archaeologist, and Manuel Serrano, who worked at the Georgia O'Keeffe home and studio in Abiquiú.

As Herrera's mugshot proliferated across news broadcasts and social media, a former romantic partner could scarcely believe her eyes. Olibama Margaret Maestas said Herrera had always spoken highly of his family and his younger brother, Brendon, in particular.

"I fell in love with the guy," Maestascqsaid, crying softly. She said she had been involved with Herrera on and off for most of last year. "To see him like this ..." Maestas said, her voice trailing off.

Herrera, a sophomore at The University of New Mexico-Taos, had taken dual credit classes there since high school. A UNM spokeswoman, Dianne Anderson,cq said he was enrolled as a pre-science student; on his personal Facebook page, Herrera listed himself as having studied biotechnology engineering.

Herrera's mostly private social media presence does not offer many hints about what could have driven his actions. His photographs reveal little more than a fondness for selfies - he frequently wears a goatee and various earrings - and an interest in dirt bikes. But one image, posted last December without comment, shows what appears to be a green sniper rifle on a bipod with a mounted scope.

The criminal complaint filed by the Rio Arriba County Sheriff's Office says investigators found a green rifle on a couch and a gun locker in a bedroom in the house at La Madera where the first shootings occurred. Several firearms were chained inside. The gun locker's glass enclosure was shattered, "with rifles in disarray."

Dozens of friends and acquaintances contacted Friday for comment about Herrera did not respond. Several asked that a reporter respect their privacy. 

Herrera attended both Mesa Vista High School and Taos High School. A man who said he was Herrera's cousin but declined to give his name said Friday that Herrera and his brother Brendon both graduated from Mesa Vista. Herrera, the cousin said, worked for two years at Start To Finish Collision Repair, an automotive shop in Taos. He was not currently employed there.

Herrera played junior varsity basketball for Mesa Vista for two years. The Trojans' head coach at the time, Thomas Vigil, said Friday he knew the Herrera family and was in shock.

"Right now, at this point, things are so fresh over here, it's not good for me to comment on it," Vigil said. "In terms of [Herrera's] character and stuff like that, I'm just at a complete loss for words."

The ex-girlfriend, Maestas,cq said Herrera did not have the bearing of a killer.

Maestas, an El Rito native who works security for a casino she declined to identify, said during the time she knew him, he was kind and often spoke highly of his younger brother.

"He loved his little brother," she said. "They were inseparable. He was so goal-driven, too. He always talked about his college courses. ... He was never violent with me. He barely even cussed. He was so sweet to me, so gentle. I'm trying to figure out how something like this could happen."

Maestas said she heard rumors while she was seeing Herrera that he was using drugs. She said she never learned anything more specific than that. She said she dismissed the rumors because Herrera told her he only used marijuana - and never around her because she didn't like it.

But after she recognized Herrera's face on the news Thursday night, she said she remembered those rumors as she tried to puzzle out what might have happened.

"He didn't have a violent bone in his body," she said. "Right now everyone is saying he's a monster. He wasn't."

Staff writer Sami Edge contributed to this report.

Contact Tripp Stelnicki at 505-428-7626 or tstelnicki@sfnewmexican.com.

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