John Wylie Needham was known as an easygoing surfer who liked to paint and play guitar and bounced from job to job. He knew he needed direction in life. So two years ago he joined the Army and eventually shipped off to Iraq.
This, he thought, would make his family proud.
Late Monday night, when Orange County sheriff’s deputies responded to a complaint about an argument at Needham’s San Clemente condo, the 25-year-old veteran answered the door naked. He was belligerent and needed to be subdued with a Taser, deputies said. And in a bedroom they found his 19-year-old girlfriend, Jacqwelyn Joann Villagomez, severely beaten.
By Tuesday morning, Villagomez was dead and Needham was charged with murder and was being held in lieu of $1-million bail.
The alleged slaying capped a tumultuous period during which Needham was wounded in combat and returned home late last year with severe mental problems, his family said. He was still in pain from the shrapnel in his legs and back. He struggled with nightmares that left him screaming. He had been hospitalized and medicated, had consulted with therapists and had reached out for help.
But it was Needham himself who appeared to know how fast he was spiraling downward.
“I’m falling apart by the seams it seems the days here bleed into each other I have to find the will to live,” he wrote in a rambling posting on his MySpace page. “These walls are caving in my despair wraps me in its web, I feel I’m sinking in, throw me a lifesaver throw me a life worth living.”
Needham’s family knew he was struggling. But never did they foresee this.
“I can’t see him doing this,” said his brother Mike Needham. “I know he went through a lot in Iraq. But this is just not him. . . . You can’t believe how happy he was until he came back from Iraq.”
Needham served in Iraq last year and was awarded a Purple Heart for his combat injury, said Army spokesman Master Sgt. Keith O’Donnell. He was discharged for unspecified medical reasons, O’Donnell said. Additional details about his service were not immediately available.
Villagomez, known to friends as Jacque, was born in the Central Valley. She was raised in Turlock by her grandmother from the age of 6, after her mother died and her father moved to Guam, friends said. She ran track at Pitman High School before moving with a boyfriend to Orange County, where she graduated from El Toro High School in Lake Forest.
Thad Moren, her track coach at Pitman, said Villagomez was a very good student and that she still holds the high school’s records for the 100- and 300-meter hurdles. She was heavily involved in the drama program, winning parts in many school plays, Moren said. She had moved out of her grandmother’s home and was living with a teammate’s family when she made the decision to leave Turlock.
“She was a bright young lady,” Moren said. “When she left, she seemed like she was on the right track. We hoped everything would turn out OK.”
Slim and toned from her running days, Villagomez dreamed of being a model, friends said. On a local modeling website she wrote:
“I have a passion for modeling. I guess it runs in the family, my mom was an amazing model. I have done small fashion shows, more when I was younger but I’m willing to learn and grow in the business!”
Needham met Villagomez a few months ago at a mutual acquaintance’s birthday party. His family described their relationship as turbulent and said he had been trying to break up with Villagomez for several weeks.
Another brother, Matt, told KTLA-TV Channel 5 that the relationship was putting additional strain on his brother.
“I knew that if they didn’t break up the proper way that, you know, it could be a bad breakup. But no one figures a bad breakup is like this,” he said. “I never saw this coming. But I’ll tell you what, with my brother . . . the mental state he’s in since Iraq, nothing would surprise me.”
Erik Krecu, 20, who said he was the victim’s ex-boyfriend, said she called him Monday evening to say Needham had tried to choke her. He said she told him Needham had become violent and aggressive in recent days. At one point, she used pepper spray against him, he said.
“We had no idea it would have turned out like this or we would have come and got her,” said Krecu’s mother, Debbie Krecu.
Authorities said the violence may have erupted after another woman arrived at Needham’s condo and became involved in a fight with Villagomez. Officials said that Needham apparently broke up the fight and that the visitor called 911 after she left the residence.
Stephen Singleton, 38, a neighbor of Needham, said he met Needham and Villagomez about a month ago as they lounged by the pool. They were friendly and seemed extremely happy, he said. He said Needham told him he had just come back from Iraq and was taking pain medication for an injury he suffered there.
Needham told him he was trying to “live each day one at a time,” Singleton said. “He wasn’t complaining about his pain. He seemed very happy.”
On Tuesday, friends gathered outside the condominium complex where Needham lived with Villagomez, his father and his brothers. Mourners created a makeshift memorial to the victim, with candles and flowers beneath yellow crime scene tape.
“He’s been no good since he got back, I’ll be honest,” Matt Needham said. “I mean, he’s my brother, we grew up in the same crib together, I love him like no one else, and it’s sad to know the person who means the most to me, to completely write them off because they’re crazy.”
Times staff writer Mike Anton contributed to this report.