TAOS — Almost a year to the day after a shooting rampage left five people dead across Northern New Mexico, accused killer Damian Herrera appeared for arraignment Wednesday on charges related to the lone slaying in Taos County.
Herrera is charged with first-degree murder and unlawful taking of a motor vehicle in connection with the June 15 shooting death of 61-year-old Michael Kyte, who had recently retired as the west district archaeologist for Carson National Forest. Police said Kyte was shot and killed in his driveway in Tres Piedras after giving Herrera a ride.
Herrera also faces four counts of first-degree murder in Rio Arriba County.
He is accused of slaying three relatives: his mother, Maria “Brenda” Rosita Gallegos, 49; his brother, Brendon Herrera, 20; and stepfather Max Trujillo Sr., 55, after an argument at the family home in La Madera.
Authorities suspect Herrera killed Kyte about two hours later after Herrera ran out of gas and asked Kyte for help. Herrera then stole Kyte’s truck, police said. That evening, outside Bode’s General Store in Abiquiú, investigators believe Herrera shot and killed Manuel Serrano, 59, a respected family man from Cañones who worked at the Georgia O’Keeffe house and studio.
Rio Arriba County sheriff’s deputies found and pursued Herrera shortly after the Abiquiú shooting. Officers said a high-speed pursuit ended when Herrera crashed the stolen Chevrolet pickup he was driving.
Asked why it took a year to arraign Herrera for the Taos County shooting death, Ron Olsen, chief deputy district attorney, said Herrera has been held in connection with the Rio Arriba County cases.
“We knew all along we would bring this case before a grand jury, but with the defendant held in custody we have been able to let the Rio Arriba case(s) develop and additional investigation take place prior to seeking an indictment,” he said via email.
During the brief hearing Wednesday in state District Judge Jeff McElroy’s courtroom, several sheriff’s deputies stood guard over Herrera, who was shackled and wearing a dark-blue jail jumpsuit. Herrera, now 22, was clean-shaven and sporting a short haircut — a far cry from the picture in the mug shot taken at the time of his arrest, which showed him bloodied and scruffy.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Herrera,” the judge said after the suspect sat down.
“Hello,” Herrera responded in a mumbled voice.
Public defender Aleks Kostich waived a formal reading of the charges and entered a not guilty plea on Herrera’s behalf.
Herrera, who Kostich said remains in the custody of the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office, is due back in court July 16 in connection with the charges in Taos County. Herrera is scheduled for trial on the Rio Arriba County charges in December.
After Wednesday’s hearing, Herrera waved and smiled at a small group of relatives sitting in the courtroom. One of his sisters, Candice Herrera, was escorted out in tears.
Family members declined an interview request.
Efforts to reach Kyte’s widow, Andrea, have been unsuccessful. Neighbors said Andrea Kyte put the home where her husband was killed up for sale about two months ago.
Michael Kyte, who had three children, was known as a “gentle, private soul,” according to his obituary.
“Michael’s passing leaves many hearts broken and a hole in our immediate universe,” the obituary states.
Duke Cozart, 78, who has lived in Tres Piedras most of his life, said he met Kyte when Kyte and his wife moved into the community about 15 years ago.
“I put his water line in for him,” he said, adding that Kyte was friendly but “kind of quiet” and “didn’t make a lot of contact with a lot of folks.”
“Never heard a bad word about him,” Cozart said.
“If [Herrera] had stole the truck … and took off, that’s one thing,” Cozart said of the allegations. “But why do you kill somebody that had nothing to do with anything?”
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.