Sitting in the back of a police cruiser, his face bloodied and bruised minutes after his arrest, Damian Herrera complained that police had roughed him up and used a Taser on him, even though he said he had voluntarily surrendered to them. Then, prompted by an officer with a digital recorder, Herrera gave his version of what led to the deaths of five people over the course of a bloody afternoon and evening in a killing spree that stretched across Rio Arriba and Taos counties last month.
By his account, Herrera's stepfather, Max Trujillo Sr., 55, pulled out a gun first as they fought over spilled gasoline, according to a transcript of that interview made public Thursday. As Herrera's brother tried to break them up, Trujillo shot him, then shot Herrera's mother as she tried to intervene. Herrera finally wrestled the gun away and shot Trujillo.
"I had to shoot him dude," Herrera told police.
Herrera's account in the transcript and in an accompanying audio recording provide a starkly different version of events of the day, June 15, that police say he killed three of his family members and two strangers before police apprehended him following a high-speed chase. Herrera, 21, of Ojo Caliente, is facing five counts of murder and is being held without bond in the Rio Arriba County jail in Tierra Amarilla.
Throughout the back-seat interview with state police Agent Joey Gallegos, Herrera insisted he was a good person, a college student who didn't believe in violence, and that the chain of deadly events was unleashed by Trujillo after Herrera had tried to help him by collecting wood for the winter.
"I didn't touch that gun until he [expletive] started going off," Herrera told the agent. "That guy has anger man ... anger issues. History of anger issues. He's been in the court of law with other people because he's an alcoholic, he has shot people, he been shot, he's just ... it's been crazy."
A review of online court records by The New Mexican on Thursday did not immediately find evidence of a violent history for Trujillo. Herrera went on, telling police that Trujillo became enraged at him because he spilled a "little bit of gasoline that was in the back of the truck."
He said Trujillo had never liked him, and this time, Trujillo "just got pissed and he had the gun in his [expletive] truck." It was a Smith and Wesson .38 caliber, police would later learn.
"And like I already told you, he started shooting at me," Herrera said. "My brother went to ... break us up. He [expletive] shot my brother. I wrestled with him for the gun. My mother got in the middle of it. He shot her."
That's when Herrera, by his account, got the gun and shot Trujillo.
"Because you were scared?" Agent Gallegos asked.
"I was scared," Herrera responded. "I didn't know what to do."
His account veers widely from a previously released criminal complaint in which police say Herrera shot his stepfather in the chest four times after Trujillo confronted Herrera about his use of Trujillo's truck. Herrera's sister, who said she witnessed the shootings, said she then saw Damian Herrera and his younger brother, Brendon Herrera, 20, scuffle over the handgun. Damian Herrera pinned his brother to a wall and shot him in the neck, Carissa Herrera told police.
Their mother, Maria Rosita Gallegos, rushed to her wounded son's side and pleaded with Damian not to shoot her, too, holding both hands up as she tried to stand before he shot her in the head, according to the complaint.
Carissa Herrera told police that her brother had appeared to be calm and stared blankly during the shootings, "as if he knew exactly what he was doing," according to the complaint.
Damian Herrera's sister fled to a neighbor's home to call police, and he fled in his stepfather's Toyota truck, according to the complaint.
Sometime later, Michael Kyte, an archaeologist from Tres Piedras, picked up Damian Herrera after he ran out of gas, according to police. But more violence soon erupted.
"And that guy, I asked him for gas and he [expletive] took me to his house to get gasoline and I don't know what the [expletive] his deal was," Herrera told police. "He was [expletive] trying to push me out of his truck as soon as we got to his house."
Herrera went on. "And I was just defending myself dude. It's just, I don't know what it is. Well I'm, I'm never into violence dude. Ask anybody who knows me."
A medical investigator later determined Kyte was shot three times, the police reports say.
Herrera left in Kyte's black Chevy truck, according to police.
Agent Gallegos asked Herrera him about the shooting in Abiquiú at Bode's General Store, where the final and fifth victim died. Herrera told the agent he shot Manuel Serrano, 59, an employee of the Georgia O'Keeffe house and studio, twice in self-defense.
"I don't even know what the [expletive] he started telling me in Spanish dude, and then I was just like yo calm down and he started rushing me," Herrera said.
Witnesses told police they heard up to five shots fired and later tended to Serrano outside the store, according to the police reports. Police believe Herrera used his stepfather's debit card to fill up the truck with gas.
A medical investigator later told police that Serrano had been shot three times.
According to the criminal complaint, Serrano, 59, 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 showed 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.
But Herrera claimed that he got out of the truck after the wreck and voluntarily surrendered, raising his hands in the air, before police rushed him.
"They [expletive] tackled me and pushed my head into the asphalt," he said, "... and they [expletive] tased me."
Michael Rosenfield, Herrera's public defender, on Thursday said he had no comment about the transcripts because he had not yet reviewed them.
"The state has provided more documents to the media than they have to us," he said.
Rosenfield said he expects a grand jury to decide next month whether to indict Herrera, after which Herrera would enter an official plea to any charges against him at an arraignment. He has not entered a plea to a five open counts of murder.
Asked how his client would plea if indicted, Rosenfield on Thursday declined to comment.
Contact Uriel J. Garcia at 505-986-3062 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Justin Horwath at 505-986-3017 or email@example.com.
The Santa Fe New Mexican is the sister publication of The Taos News.