SANTA ANA, Calif. - Eder Herrera lost his mother and brother to a gruesome stabbing and spent three months in jail as the prime suspect.
Even after his best friend from high school confessed to the crimes and four other killings in Southern California — before committing suicide in jail — authorities say Herrera is still under suspicion in the deaths of his family members.
Now, Herrera, 26, is trying to clear his name, filing a federal civil rights lawsuit against police for wrongful imprisonment and fighting deportation proceedings to Mexico, a country he hardly knows, that were spawned by his arrest.
"I'm trying to get over this situation, but they keep pulling me back," Herrera said.
Herrera will make his case Friday in Orange County Superior Court for authorities to return his belongings, including a laptop computer his mother gave him and family videos that police seized. In federal court, he is asking for access to police evidence and unspecified monetary damages.
Prosecutors say while Herrera isn't charged, he may have been involved in the murders in some capacity and police are still investigating. An attorney representing the police would not comment on the wrongful arrest allegations or the evidence.
"There was significant circumstantial evidence that led us to believe he was involved initially, and that evidence still exists," said Brea police Chief Jack Conklin, who also declined to discuss the nature of the evidence his investigators have.
Authorities say Herrera's best friend, Itzcoatl Ocampo, decided to kill him and his family after the two had a falling out. Soon after Ocampo arrived at Herrera's house in Yorba Linda in October 2011, he saw Herrera leave. Ocampo then killed Raquel Estrada, 53, and Juan Carlos Herrera, 34, police said.
Herrera, who had been driving around stoned and stopped to eat at a restaurant with a friend the night of the murders, was locked up, while Ocampo went on a killing spree that terrorized the county's homeless before he was caught, said John Burton, Herrera's lawyer.
"Whenever you fixate on the wrong guy you let the real guy off the hook, and here that led to the murders of four people that never should have happened," Burton said.
Burton said Herrera could have led authorities to Ocampo sooner if they had played a 911 call reporting noises coming from the family's home, as when he later heard it, Herrera recognized the voice as Ocampo's.
In January 2012, Ocampo was arrested in the slayings of four homeless men. Once in jail, Ocampo confessed to killing Herrera's mother and brother in a murder plot that he said also targeted Herrera, and police found DNA on Ocampo's boots linking him to the Yorba Linda stabbings, authorities said.
Ocampo died late last year at age 25 after he ate industrial cleaner in his jail cell.
While Herrera was freed three weeks after Ocampo's arrest, the district attorney said Herrera's behaviour the night of the murders was suspicious, noting he saw police outside the home and drove by without checking on his family. A witness said someone he believed to be Herrera dragged something back into the home.
Since Herrera's release, police say they have new evidence related to the murders, but declined to disclose it.
Prosecutors say they have not returned personal items to other victims' families in the case because authorities are still investigating Ocampo's suicide.
Authorities have no problem returning Herrera's belongings if they serve no evidentiary value, said Susan Price, senior deputy district attorney for Orange County.
Since his arrest, Herrera has also been fighting deportation and is due in immigration court later this year. His mother fled financial troubles in Mexico and when Herrera was 7 years old she brought her boys to Southern California, where she worked cleaning houses and making floral decorations.
Herrera joined his older brother as a street sweeper after high school, but he still dreams of becoming a racecar driver.
Herrera said the reluctance of police to clear his name has added to his troubles. He is seen by authorities as both a victim, and suspect, of the same crime.
He mourns the loss of his mother and brother, whose ashes are in urns at his uncles' house in Riverside, and fears federal immigration officials will reject his application for a work permit because he still lives under a shadow of suspicion.
"My mind is clean and my heart is clean," he said. "I am more concerned with the loss of my family and having to deal with that."
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