Stunned by shootings

String of murders rattles Northern New Mexico


Damian Herrera was known in the small town of La Madera as a quiet, respectful young man. He played on the basketball team at Mesa Vista High School. He had gone on to attend classes at University of New Mexico-Taos, where he was pursuing a pre-science degree. He was seeing a girl who spoke highly of him and said that he was close with his friends and family.

But there was another side to Herrera, a side of him that seems to contradict nearly every statement given by those who recalled the young man they grew up with - the same man who allegedly shot and killed three of his family members - including his mother, Maria "Brenda" Rosita Gallegos - and two strangers on Thursday (June 15).

Dolores Archuleta-Lopez, 65, Gallegos' cousin, said that people in La Madera "grew up in loving families." She was unaware of Herrera ever getting into trouble. "We're all in shock that this happened," she said.

Her disbelief is shared by the residents of La Madera, who struggle to grasp that a shooting of such magnitude and brutality could take place so close to their homes. That incredulity seems to have lent itself to early speculation that seemed to oversimplify what may have truly been behind the shootings - that Herrera must have been a drug user or, according to an initial police investigation, that Herrera allegedly shot and killed five people because he became enraged during an argument over a family vehicle.

But as Herrera's sister, Carissa Herrera, 16, watched her brother allegedly shoot to death her stepfather, Max Trujillo Sr., 55; brother, Brendon Herrera, 20; and mother, Gallegos, 49, at her family's home Thursday afternoon, she said Damian Herrera turned to her with a blank stare on his face that she didn't recognize. "That wasn't my brother," Carissa Herrera wrote in a post on her Facebook page four days after the shootings.

The suspect could be seen wearing the same emotionless expression on his face as he appeared on a taped arraignment in Río Arriba Magistrate Court on Friday (June 16) after he was arrested Thursday night.

In an interview with Albuquerque-based KRQE-TV earlier this week, Carissa Herrera and her sister, Candice, said that he had been struggling with an undiagnosed mental illness for about two years. They said that "he would hear things" and that on the day of the violent shootings, he was scheduled for an "appointment."

But they said Damian Herrera never actually went, as he "was scared."

Police still don't know for certain where the 21-year-old suspect actually traveled Thursday morning in a family truck he had taken without permission.

The violent incident that transpired when he returned to his family's home in the gray Toyota pickup, however, has been recorded in police reports in grisly detail.

Carissa Herrera was inside the residence Thursday afternoon when she heard Damian Herrera and her stepfather arguing in the front yard over the pickup the suspect had taken. "Three to four gunshots" then rang out, according to her statements to police. She left the residence with her brother, Brendon Herrera, and her mother to discover Trujillo lying on the ground with gunshot wounds to his chest. Damian Herrera allegedly stood over the body with a black, short-barreled revolver. Carissa Herrera ran back inside to call 911 as Brendon Herrera attempted to wrestle the weapon from his brother. The suspect then allegedly shot Brendon Herrera in the neck. Gallegos rushed to her son's side as he died of the injury. Damian Herrera then allegedly pointed the gun at his mother as she knelt on the ground, pleading with him not to shoot her as well. He then allegedly shot her in the head.

When police and emergency personnel arrived on the scene around 3:15 p.m., Brendon Herrera and Trujillo were pronounced dead where they lay. Gallegos would die of her injuries the next day.

What happened next is unclear. Following his arrest later Thursday night, Damian Herrera stated in an interview with police that he then hitched a ride with a fourth victim, Michael Kyte, 61, of Tres Piedras. Kyte's wife returned home Thursday evening to find her husband with bullet holes in his chest, allegedly inflicted by the suspect before he stole Kyte's Chevrolet Silverado. Kyte would also be pronounced dead when Taos County Emergency Services personnel arrived on the scene minutes later.

It took police a few days to discover the location of the Toyota truck Damian Herrera had driven from the first crime scene in La Madera, which was discovered in the Tres Piedras area this week. 

After allegedly shooting Kyte and stealing his vehicle, Damian Herrera then fled north along State Road 285, wending his way west through Antonito, Colorado, before turning south along State Road 84. It is also unclear whether the suspect stopped in Colorado or why he chose the route. An official at the Conejos County Sheriff's Office said Monday (June 19) that his office was not looking into the incident. But Río Arriba County Sheriff James Lujan, 56, speculated that Herrera may have taken the roundabout route to throw police off his trail.

Fleeing south, Damian Herrera stopped for gas at Bode's General Store in Abiquiú, southwest of La Madera. His fifth victim, Manuel Serrano, 59, a security officer at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, was filling up at a pump across from him. Security cameras captured the moment when the suspect finished filling his truck and Serrano then began running frantically around his vehicle. It is during these moments that police believe Herrera fatally shot Serrano.

Damian Herrera then drove the stolen truck south along State Road 84. Police caught up to him traveling at a "high rate of speed" near mile marker 202. Officials said Herrera was traveling so fast that he nearly crashed into a police vehicle traveling in the opposite lane. The suspect overcorrected, hitting a tree on the right-hand shoulder of the roadway. Herrera left the vehicle and "ran" at sheriff's deputies, a "large" kitchen knife visible on his side, according to police reports. Herrera attempted to take one of the officer's service weapons, which discharged during what police have described as a "scuffle." The round fired injured no one. A deputy standing by subdued Herrera with a Taser.

Damian Herrera was arrested around 8:30 p.m. and incarcerated in Río Arriba County Thursday night. Shortly after his arrest, police say he admitted to shooting and killing all five victims.

He was initially charged with four counts of first-degree murder Friday morning, along with other charges stemming from the alleged crimes. When his mother, who had been kept on life support, died of her injuries Friday evening, a fifth count of murder was added. The suspect has been assigned a public attorney, who will provide defense counsel as the case moves through the court system.