On the night of his arrest a year ago, Damian Herrera emergedfrom the wreckage of a stolen truck he’d crashed.
Bloodied and bruised, his dark hair dirty and disheveled, a bearded Herrera charged a Rio Arriba County sheriff’s deputy after a high-speed pursuit that ended when he veered off U.S. 84 about 13 miles north of Española and hit a tree, police said.
“I didn’t do anything!” Herrera, then 21, yelled after sheriff’s deputies pinned him to the pavement, ending a daylong hunt for a man suspected of killing three family members and two strangers who had crossed his path. “I swear I didn’t do anything!”
On Wednesday in Taos, Herrera continued to maintain his innocence as a public defender entered a not guilty plea to a first-degree murder charge that Herrera faces in Taos County in the shooting death of 61-year-old Michael Kyte in Tres Piedras, the fourth slaying in a string of five Herrera is accused of committing.
Though shackled and surrounded by sheriff’s deputies, Herrera, now a year older, walked into the courtroom looking like a completely different person: calm, smiling, clean-shaven; his hair short and combed to the side.
While a year has changed the way Herrera looks, it hasn’t erased the pain of the people who knew and loved the five victims.
“There is no way for me to convey to anyone how difficult it is just to be in my skin,” Kyte’s widow, Andrea, said in an email.
“Maybe it’s because [June 15] is the anniversary of finding my gentle, private husband shot to death in our driveway. The one-year mark makes my nerves raw,” she wrote. “Everything reminds me of that time. The air, the temperature, the season, the plants, everything. There is no escape from this pain.”
In addition to Kyte, Herrera also is accused of killing 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, a quiet and rural mountain community about seven miles north of Ojo Caliente.
“I live with a broken heart,” Pauline Irons, Trujillo’s 75-year-old mother, said in a telephone interview from California. “I’ll never get over it.”
Irons, a Vallecitos native who lives in Huntington Beach, Calif., said her son was like a father to Damian Herrera and his siblings.
“He loved them like they were his own,” she said. “You’d never know the difference, never knew the difference. He treated them just like they were his own. [Brenda Gallegos] never worked, and he worked and supported all of them.”
Irons said Damian Herrera never exhibited behavior that would cause great concern, but she said he was different than his brothers and sisters.
“My son had six kids to support, and Damian always had to have more or the best,” she said. “The other kids got what they got because there were so many of them and they were happy. Damian was not happy with what he got. He always wanted more.”
Efforts to reach Damian Herrera’s biological father, Delbert Herrera Sr., a registered sex offender who was convicted of criminal sexual contact of a minor in 2002, were unsuccessful. Herrera Sr. lives in Bernalillo, according to the state’s sex offender registry.
“They never really knew him because they were little” when he went to prison, Irons said of the Herrera siblings. “Max was the only dad they had. He was good to them. He just took them in and treated them like they were his own.”
A burst of violence
According to police reports, the deadly confrontation began when Trujillo confronted Herrera about driving a truck he did not have permission to use, and the argument escalated with Herrera opening fire with a handgun, hitting Trujillo in the chest. When Brendon Herrera tried to intervene, the two brothers got into a scuffle over the gun. Damian Herrera pinned his younger brother against a carport wall and fired the gun, fatally striking him in the neck, according to police.
Damian Herrera’s little sister, Carissa, who was 16 at the time and witnessed the shooting, told police their mother rushed to her wounded son’s side. Carissa Herrera told police that their mother pleaded with Damian not to shoot her. But as their mother tried to stand up, holding both hands up while pleading for her life, Damian shot her in the head, reports state.
Carissa Herrera told KRQE-TV last year that her brother, who was a student at the University of New Mexico-Taos and had no apparent criminal record, had been struggling with mental illness.
“He was sick mentally. He would, you know, hear things,” Carissa Herrera said.
“We did try to help him, to get him help,” her older sister, Candice Herrera, told the TV station.
Relatives of Damian Herrera declined to be interviewed or did not return messages seeking comment.
“I’ve tried to forget as much as possible,” Valentin Gallegos, whose sister, Brenda, was killed, said in a telephone interview. “I’m sorry. I don’t really want to deal with it anymore.”
After the shooting in La Madera, police said Damian Herrera fled the scene and headed toward Tres Piedras, which is about a 30-minute drive north.
Michael Kyte, an archaeologist who had recently retired from Carson National Forest, picked up Damian Herrera after he ran out of gas, according to police. Exactly what happened next is unclear, but Kyte was found shot to death in his driveway, and his truck was missing.
Police said Herrera stole Kyte’s black 2012 Chevrolet pickup and headed north to Antonito, Colo. He traveled west into Cumbres Pass and then looped back to New Mexico through Chama and Tierra Amarilla before stopping for gas at Bode’s General Store in Abiquiú. That’s where police say he shot Manuel Serrano, 59, a respected family man from Cañones who worked at the Georgia O’Keeffe house and studio in Abiquiú.
Efforts to reach Serrano’s family for comment were unsuccessful. Serrano left behind a wife of 38 years, Cathy, who was his high school sweetheart, two daughters and three grandchildren.
The former Jemez Mountain School District board member was an avid Coronado High School Leopards fan, often seen in the bleachers alongside his wife cheering on the small school’s basketball and volleyball teams. He was a longtime employee of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation and had been involved with O’Keeffe’s property in Abiquiú since O’Keeffe lived there.
“All of us at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum miss Manuel greatly,” Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Director Robert Kret said in an email.
“The experiences we shared with him as our colleague and friend, and the impact of his loss, have forever touched our lives. We think of him daily,” Kret wrote. “At our new O’Keeffe Welcome Center in Abiquiú, we have a classroom; it is a place for the community, learning, and togetherness. We have dedicated this space to Manuel with a plaque that bears his name. He is still a part of the O’Keeffe, and he always will be.”
The road ahead
While the families and friends of those who were gunned down are still reeling from the shock, they may soon face another painful reminder of the horrific series of events when Herrera goes to trial.
Four of the slayings happened in Rio Arriba County. Herrera is scheduled to go to trial for the murders of his three relatives and Serrano in December. Herrera is due back in court July 16 in connection with the charges in Taos County.
Herrera is currently behind bars at the Penitentiary of New Mexico in Santa Fe, where he was eventually moved after he tried to break out of the Rio Arriba County jail in Tierra Amarilla twice — assaulting a guard with a flashlight in one of the incidents, officials said. He is being held in a maximum-security unit and is housed alone in an 8-foot by 10-foot cell.
New Mexico Corrections Department spokesman S.U. Mahesh said Herrera spends 23 hours a day in his cell. Inmates like him who are held in restrictive units are generally allowed to exercise out of their cells for one hour each day.
“He doesn’t have any interaction with any other inmates,” Mahesh said.
At Wednesday’s court hearing, Damian Herrera waved and smiled at a small number of family members.
The court hearing was brief, and Herrera said very little during the proceedings. A public defender waived a formal reading of the charges that Herrera faces in Taos County, a move that upset Kyte’s widow.
“I wanted to hear it said to him,” Andrea Kyte wrote. “I wanted it to be told to him in court. On record. No mention of first-degree murder or unlawfully taking of a motor vehicle resulting in the loss of life. My greatest fear is that when the time comes for justice to be had for Michael, Taos County will not pursue it. I’m afraid they will make a plea agreement. I want a trial. I want justice for Michael, our children and grandchildren.”
Ron Olsen, chief deputy district attorney in Taos, said in an email Friday that the District Attorney’s Office is in communication with Andrea Kyte, “which will continue throughout the entirety of this case.” Olsen said his office is also in regular communication with the prosecutors handling the cases in Rio Arriba County.
“We intend to prosecute Mr. Herrera to the fullest extent for his actions in Taos County,” Olsen wrote. “Any developments in this case will be discussed in detail with Mrs. Kyte, but we will not prosecute this or any other case in the press.”
Irons, whose son, Max, was killed, said she struggles with the death of her son and the others every day.
“It’s something that I have to die with,” she said, weeping.
Irons said she hopes the accused killer reflects on the damage and pain the families feel.
“It’s just not understandable what happened,” she said. “I don’t know why he snapped.”
Irons said Damian Herrera “ruined a lot of families” and that she wants him locked away for life.
Andrea Kyte indicated that only time will help heal some of her wounds.
“People have survived this kind of tragedy before, and my family will too. But surviving is not thriving,” she wrote.
“I must say those who loved Michael and his family have really supported all of us this past year. I am especially grateful to my neighbors and family for helping. But also for giving me space,” she added. “Right now, at this time, there is no solace, no peace.”
Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.