Close readers may recall that almost a year ago the lawyer for Eder Giovanni Herrera accused Orange County law enforcement of having blood on its hands in the deaths of four homeless men who were fatally stabbed after Herrera was falsely locked up for the murders of his mother and older brother in Yorba Linda. The latter slayings and the four that followed were ultimately pinned to Herrera's former best friend Itzcoatl "Izzy" Ocampo, who went on to commit suicide while in custody. The Brea Police Department patrolled Yorba Linda under contract on Oct. 25, 2011, when Ocampo stabbed 53-year-old Raquel Estrada more than 30 times in her upper body and her 34-year-old son Juan Herrera more than 60 times before leaving their bodies on the floor of their home. Now, the City of Brea has agreed to pay the surviving son $700,000 to settle his wrongful imprisonment lawsuit.
When District Attorney Tony Rackauckas announced in February 2012 that he would seek the death penalty for Ocampo, he also revealed that Herrera had been released from jail, where he had been for the four months since his mother and brother were brutally killed. However, T-Rack also said Herrera's actions after his family's slayings were "suspicious" and that he could be re-arrested if evidence supported it.
As Pasadena attorney John Burton filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles in May 2014 alleging his client Herrera's wrongful imprisonment by Brea Police, that department's Chief Jack Conklin said "significant circumstantial evidence" existed to consider Herrera a suspect as well as "new evidence" that had surfaced since his arrest. The Orange County District Attorney's office also confirmed to the Weekly that Herrera was still suspected of having played some kind of role in the killings of his mom and brother.
But at the time, Burton pointed to grand jury testimony by a Brea police investigator who said Ocampo actually went to the Herrera home not to kill Eder's mother and brother but his former best friend Eder, who like other ex-pals of the discharged Marine-turned-serial killer kept their distance from him because of his escalating paranoia.
Watching the family from outside their home without them knowing, Ocampo got spooked because he saw Eder Herrera carrying scissors, the cop told the grand jury, before adding that Eder soon left the premises to hang out with a friend who had also been a buddy of Ocampo's in high school. That changed Ocampo's plan. Raquel and Juan Herrera were repeatedly stabbed with a military knife, just as four homeless men would be in the weeks that followed. But in the Brea home, Ocampo took out a kitchen knife, dipped it in the pool of blood and left the weapon near the bodies to make it appear Eder had done it, according to Burton.
His client had once been accused of placing the call to dispatchers that resulted in Brea Police arriving at the Herrera home, but Burton believes the evidence shows Ocampo made the call. If Eder Herrera was involved in the slayings, the attorney asked, why would he have had Ocampo phone it in?
Burton accused cops of sloppy police work, saying a trained investigator should have known at the scene that the gaping wounds in the mother and son were not made by a kitchen knife. That alone, the lawyer said, should have put homicide detectives on the trail to Ocampo sooner and perhaps prevented the fatal stabbings of James McGillivray, Lloyd "Jimmy" Middaugh, Paulus "Dutch" Smit and John Berry that would follow.
Instead of admitting to these early mistakes, police and prosecutors prolonged the inevitable release from custody of Eder Herrera, who was most incensed that he had to stew in jail while his mother and brother were being laid to rest, Burton said.
Speaking of jail, that is probably the source of the "new evidence" cited by Brea Police, according to Burton, who surmised it came from an informant. The use of jailhouse informants in Orange County is now receiving heavy scrutiny that is delaying trials of real killers (serial and otherwise) and has led to the early release of some who'd been behind bars.
Based on records of the police interrogations, cell phone calls and pings, a grand jury report and other materials Burton gathered, he claimed his client, who works as a parking lot sweeper, had an alibi for the time of the murders.
Of course, Brea Police Lt. Darrin Devereux told the Los Angeles Times Tuesday that his city was parting with $700,000 of its treasure not because of sloppy police work but because it would be cheaper than going to trial and possibly being on the hook for millions in damages and attorney fees.
In settling, the city admits no liability.