Authorities said the 33-year-old man accused of stabbing four people to death in a rampage across two Orange County cities is a known gang member with a criminal record dating back to 2004.
But detectives said they still were not sure why Zachary Castaneda allegedly went on the attack Wednesday, saying the violence appears to be random and that he didn’t know those he targeted.
Castaneda “unleashed evil across our two cities,” said Garden Grove Police Lt. Carl Whitney.
The spate of violence, which left two other people injured, is one of the worst Orange County has experienced in recent years. The slayings — which came days after mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso — prompted Garden Grove officials to lower their flags to half-staff on Thursday.
Authorities said the attacks, which unfolded over a roughly 2½-hour period, begun as robberies and quickly turned deadly. Officials say there is no indication the attacks were racially motivated.
Castaneda became violent with detectives who tried to interview him several times overnight, police said. He gave no hint about his motives, Whitney said.
“I’ve been a police officer for 30 years, and this is the first time I’ve ever seen a suspect kill four people and stab others,” he said. “It’s pure evil.”
Castaneda has an extensive criminal history in Orange County that includes convictions for gun-related offenses, resisting a police officer, corporal injury, drug possession and theft. He also has several open cases in Orange County Superior Court on charges of vandalism related to gang activity, possession of a dagger and drug possession. He has pleaded not guilty to those charges, according to court records.
Just days before the rampage, Castaneda’s wife filed paperwork to move their divorce forward. The couple have three children, boys ages 7 and 12 and a teenage daughter. Last April, an Orange County judge issued a restraining order against Castaneda. In court documents, Yessica Rodriguez described him as an abusive husband.
On New Year’s Eve 2017, the couple got into a verbal argument, which escalated with Castaneda “throwing things, one of which was a beer can which hit my daughter,” Rodriguez stated in court documents.
“I cannot continue to put my children at risk of injury or further abuse of any kind by Mr. Castaneda,” she stated.
Rodriguez also described another incident in 2009, when a verbal argument between the couple turned so violent that her mother “called an ambulance” for her.
Garden Grove Police Chief Tom DaRe said changes in California law — namely AB 109 — that aimed to reduce the number of inmates in the state prison system made it easy for Castaneda to carry out the crimes.
“This person should have been in prison and not in our community,” DaRe said.
Police say Castaneda’s rampage started with a residential burglary in Garden Grove shortly after 4 p.m. Wednesday and quickly evolved into a series of apparently random stabbings that terrorized Garden Grove and Santa Ana before he was taken into custody outside a 7-Eleven store in Santa Ana.
Four men were killed and a 44-year-old man and a 54-year-old woman were wounded in the attacks. Authorities have not released their names, but family members identified one of the individuals killed as 62-year-old Helmuth Hauprich.
Hauprich and Castaneda lived in adjacent apartments at the Casa De Portola complex on Jentges Avenue in Garden Grove. That’s where Castaneda’s crimes began and later turned deadly, Whitney said.
Shortly after 4 p.m., Hauprich and his longtime roommate arrived home to find their apartment had been ransacked. A passport, a Social Security card, a work authorization card (known as a green card), a sword collection and a large dining room table had been stolen, according to Hauprich’s son, Erwin Hauprich.
Helmuth Hauprich called police, but before officers could arrive, they were dispatched to a report of an armed robbery at M Bakery in the 13000 block of Chapman Avenue.
Dona Beltran, the bakery owner, said in an interview that she was outside, charging her phone in her parked car, when a Mercedes pulled up a little after 4 p.m. and a man, later identified as Castaneda, got out and walked into the store.
Thinking he was a customer, she followed him inside.
As she entered, she saw the man had walked behind the counter and was rummaging around, attempting to open the cash registers.
“What are you doing? What are you doing?” she screamed.
The man pulled up his shirt and motioned to his waistline at what Beltran assumed was a weapon. She ran into a dental office next door and yelled: “Call the police. He’s trying to rob my bakery.”
The dental office employees locked the door and Beltran saw the man lug away her cash registers, plop them in his car and drive away.
“It was a miracle” she wasn’t hurt, she said. “This was a second chance for me.”
According to police, the suspect then returned to the Casa De Portola apartment complex about 5 p.m. and got into an altercation with Hauprich and his roommate. He stabbed both of them multiple times, Whitney said.
When officers arrived, they found one man on the balcony and another man lying inside. One died at the scene and the other was taken to a trauma center, where he later died, Whitney said.
Erwin Hauprich said he spoke to his father for the last time shortly after the roommates discovered their home had been burglarized. The son said his father, who had lived in the apartment for more than 20 years, was well-liked and was “always making jokes.”
Forty minutes later, Castaneda, who was wearing a black hooded sweatshirt, walked into Cash N More, a check-cashing business, in the 12800 block of Chapman Avenue and robbed a customer, police and witnesses said.
Yesenia Torres, 34, of Santa Ana was the lone employee on duty at the time. She didn’t think much of the man at first as he paced back and forth inside the store.
“I figured he was just in a hurry,” Torres told The Times.
Torres said she had just completed processing a $200 loan for a female customer, who took the cash and was walking toward the door when the suspect walked up and told the woman in Spanish: “This is a robbery. The insurance will pay you back.”
He had one hand in his pocket and grabbed the cash with the other. Torres said she didn’t see a weapon.
“This can’t be happening to me,” the customer said in Spanish and stood there in shock.
Torres said she averted her gaze to avoid making eye contact with the suspect, but once he exited the store, she said she was able to spot the man’s vehicle and wrote down his license plate number. She pressed the panic button and called law enforcement, she said.
Initially, she thought it had just been a simple robbery. Hours later, she heard about the killings.
“I was in shock. What if he would have taken out a weapon on our customer? You go through all the scenarios. It’s scary. He seemed like such a normal person,” she said. “I do feel lucky.”
Authorities say Castaneda tried to rob the Best One Insurance Agency in the 12800 block of Harbor Boulevard in Garden Grove about 6:06 p.m. Inside, he attacked a 54-year-old employee, confronting her with what was described as a machete-style knife, Whitney said.
“This female employee was very brave; this guy was armed with knives,” Whitney said. “She fought as best as she could against this armed suspect and sustained multiple stab wounds.”
The woman was taken to a hospital and was expected to survive.
Next, about 6:09 p.m., Castaneda pulled up at a Chevron gas station in the 13300 block of Harbor Boulevard in Garden Grove and allegedly attacked a man pumping gas, stabbing him in the back as well as nearly cutting off the man’s nose. Castaneda returned to his vehicle and continued filling up his gas tank before driving off, Whitney said.
Chevron employee Taylor Lorenzen told NBC the suspect came inside the store “kind of angry” and threw a $50 bill on the counter. The man stabbed while pumping gas was “bleeding everywhere,” Lorenzen told the station.
Whitney said passersby rushed to the man’s aid and tried to help him. When authorities arrived, they provided information that helped police link the incident to the suspect in the other stabbings, he said.
The victim was taken to a hospital for treatment.
“They were willing to come forward and help the Police Department, give us information that was crucial in getting this guy identified and help this guy who was stabbed and sustained serious injuries,” Whitney said. “The public really stepped up to help this guy.”
After leaving the gas station, Castaneda drove south on Harbor Boulevard, stopping at a Subway sandwich shop in the 3800 block of West 1st Street in Santa Ana about 6:16 p.m. There, authorities said, he fatally stabbed a third man.
Police say he went across the street about 10 minutes later and attacked a security guard from behind at a 7-Eleven, stabbing and killing him. Castaneda cut the security guard’s gun off of his duty belt and walked outside, Whitney said.
Undercover detectives from Garden Grove were combing through the area trying to find the suspect when they spotted the silver Mercedes he was driving parked in front of the 7-Eleven. They confronted Castaneda outside the store and took him into custody at gunpoint, Whitney said.
DaRe said the officers “saved the lives of many other communities members. If the suspect continued his rampage he could have injured or killed many other innocent people.”
The violence rocked Garden Grove, a city of about 174,000 in central Orange County that has seen six homicides, at most, annually in recent years.
“This is one of those things you see one time in a career,” Whitney said. “We want to make sure we have a solid case and we can put this guy in prison for the rest of his life.”
Times staff writers Richard Winton, Colleen Shalby, Jaclyn Cosgrove and Louis Sahagun contributed to this report.