The Knight of the Hunted
The last time Orange County collectively fretted about a serial killer among its ranks was a quarter of a century ago, when Richard Ramirez roamed Southern California on a murderous rampage fueled by Van Halen's "Runnin' With the Devil." For 18 months in the mid-1980s, Ramirez—a Texas drifter and Satan worshiper dubbed the "Night Stalker" by the media—broke into homes to torture, rape and/or murder at least 14 people, including a young Mission Viejo couple. The killer's celebrity status led to his capture when citizens recognized him on a Los Angeles street and nearly beat him to a pulp before the authorities intervened.
As with Ramirez, present-day accused Orange County serial killer Itzcoatl Ocampo generated a massive, multi-agency manhunt that ended on Jan. 13, when citizens alerted the police after seeing a man butcher a homeless man near a Carl's Jr. in Anaheim Hills. Within minutes, police captured the bloody, knife-wielding, 23-year-old ex-Marine from Yorba Linda. If homicide investigators are right, Ocampo used a 7-inch, military-grade, Rambo-style hunting knife to kill four homeless men during a 24-day crime spree.
At a Jan. 17 joint press conference with officials from numerous police agencies including the sheriff's department and the FBI, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas called Ocampo "a monster" and "a vicious killer."
"We will be proving that [Ocampo] planned the murders in advance, stalked his victims looking for the right opportunity to execute them and that he had additional victims already selected," said Rackauckas.
The DA punted on the two biggest questions of the day from reporters: Would he seek the death penalty against the Iraq War veteran and Mexico City native who became a U.S. citizen at the age of 12? And what was Ocampo's alleged motive? There was a single answer to both inquiries: Law enforcement isn't ready to discuss either topic at this point.
"His [Ocampo's] reasons and motives will become real clear in the future," Rackauckas said.
Susan Kang Schroeder, the DA's chief of staff, said, "We can't talk about it now, but this guy was sick. He got off on [the killings]."
In a post-press conference interview with KFI-AM, the DA added that he believes Ocampo's motive was "unusual."
Whether Ocampo or not, the killer undoubtedly brought passion to his work. The first three victims were cumulatively stabbed more than 150 times. The last victim, 64-year-old Vietnam War veteran John Berry, was also repeatedly stabbed, but at press time, investigators weren't willing to divulge the number. Rackauckas said, however, that forensic evidence shows the killer continued to stab the victims after they were dead.
Despite the gruesome overkill, "there is no evidence that he is mentally ill," according to the DA.
But don't be shocked if Ocampo's attorney, Randall Longwith, claims his client is a victim of post-traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD) from his military experiences, went cuckoo during the crime spree and deserves an insanity plea that avoids prison.
Based on law-enforcement interviews, it appears Ocampo cherished the media coverage of the murders and, in an eerie move worth of a Hollywood plot point, may have sought out Berry because the Los Angeles Times published a picture of him talking to an Anaheim cop about the killings. Berry told the paper he was being "careful."
Paging Dr. Freud: In another twist, Refugio Ocampo, the defendant's father, is homeless and lives in a vehicle. He has insisted to reporters that his son was generous to people living in poverty and incapable of committing such heinous acts.
Other than a solid arrest, you might not expect that good news could emerge from four murders, but Rackauckas thinks he's found it.
"There are going to be some members of the public who feel less sympathy for these victims because they were homeless," he said at the press conference. "Often, these types of victims are preyed upon because the perpetrator does not believe anyone would care about them. I am proud to live in a community [in which] we do care about the more vulnerable [residents]. We saw it in the Kelly Thomas case, and we see it here."
Thomas, of course, was the schizophrenic homeless man detained by Fullerton police officers near a bus depot on the night of July 5, 2011, only to have six of them beat him into a coma that resulted in his death. Rackauckas is prosecuting two of them: Manuel Ramos and Jay Cicinelli.
In that matter, as well as in the Ocampo case, the DA—often considered by his critics as a heartless, bumbling or devious conservative Republican—demonstrated that the poorest among us have an unlikely ally.
This column appeared in print as "The Knight of the Hunted: With the arrest of Itzcoatl Ocampo, DA Tony Rackauckas now faces two high-profile murder cases involving the homeless."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss OC Weekly's biggest stories. Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts