Suspect in O.C. killings of homeless men is an Iraq war veteran

A 23-year-old former Marine who some say was distraught after combat service in Iraq has been named a suspect in the serial killings of four homeless men in Orange County.

Itzcoatl Ocampo of Yorba Linda was chased by bystanders Friday after the most recent stabbing death behind a fast-food restaurant in an Anaheim shopping center parking lot. Ocampo remained in police custody without bail Saturday and is expected in court on Tuesday.

“We are extremely confident that we have the man who is responsible for the murders of all four homeless men in Orange County,” Anaheim Police Chief John Welter said at a news conference Saturday. Police said they will seek four counts of murder next week.

Photos: Serial killer targets O.C. homeless

Authorities did not specify a motive for the killings, which began on Dec. 20 and sent fear through the homeless community. However, a relative and a friend of the suspect described a young man who appeared to be deeply troubled after his return from service in Iraq in the summer of 2010.


“When he came back from Iraq, he was sick,” said his uncle, Ifrain Gonzalez.

For the last year, he had been telling relatives that he was seeing and hearing things, Gonzalez said.

The last time Gonzalez saw his nephew was at a Christmas Eve party. Ocampo, he said, had told a cousin, “I did something terrible, but don’t worry.”

It was four days after the killings had begun.

Brian Doyle, a friend from high school, said Ocampo told him he had been kicked out of the military. A Marine Corps representative could not be reached Saturday for confirmation, and Anaheim police declined to discuss Ocampo’s military service.

Since Ocampo’s return, he had socialized with Doyle from time to time, drinking beer, smoking cigars and talking.

He was arrested Friday evening after bystanders chased him down about a quarter mile from the shopping center where police found the body of John Berry, 64, near a trash bin behind a Carl’s Jr. restaurant.

On Saturday, a makeshift memorial of balloons, flowers and oatmeal cookies stood at the site of the homeless man’s death, near La Palma Avenue and Imperial Highway. Mourners described him as a familiar and friendly presence outside the restaurant.

Berry had a long white beard and often ended a conversation with a blessing. Friends said he was an astronomy buff and carried a well-thumbed Audubon guide, as well as a Bible. Berry enjoyed identifying the fowl visiting nearby waterways, said friend Bill Emery. “One day he pointed out a duck and said, ‘That’s a cinnamon teal.’ ”

Berry was less forthcoming about his own family. He told some people that they lived in Costa Rica and others that he was from back East and that his father was a physician.

With a serial killer targeting homeless men, friends and acquaintances said, they worried for Berry’s safety.

At first, Berry said he wasn’t scared. He was interviewed earlier this month by a Times reporter at the camp along the nearby Santa Ana River bed where he had been living for months under a tarp. He said he was safer there than in a shelter.

“I just like to stay outdoors,” Berry said. “A guy can get killed crossing the street. I’ve been as careful as I can, watching and everything.”

Police had warned him to leave, but he refused.

In his final days, however, Berry grew more afraid.

Marilyn Holland, 51, who lives in a mobile home park near the shopping center, said that she saw Berry on Thursday and that he told her he thought somebody was stalking him from the trees along the riverbed.

She said she planned to buy him a prepaid cellphone but never got the chance.

Holland and others said he would be missed. “He knew everybody around here by their first name,” she said.

Linda Maher, who also lives in the mobile home park, said she talked to Berry on Friday and told him to be careful.

“God bless you,” he replied.

At an 8 p.m. vigil for Berry on Saturday, a crowd of more than 100 people gathered to pay respects. Some held candles, while children passed out yarn necklaces with plastic military toy figures as charms. A recording of the Beatles’ “Yesterday” played.

Shaun Smith, a homemaker from Yorba Linda, set up a table where she handed out candles. “I used to say. ‘John, what do you need?’ and he said, ‘Nothing. I like to go to sleep under the stars and wake up to the birds,’ ” she said. “He liked his life.”

A task force of local police departments, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the FBI had been investigating the stabbing deaths for nearly a month, and determined quickly that they were looking at the work of a serial killer.

The other victims were James Patrick McGillivray, 53, who was killed near a shopping center in Placentia on Dec. 20; Lloyd Middaugh, 42, whose body was found in Anaheim on Dec. 28; and Paulus Smit, 57, who was slain in Yorba Linda on Dec. 30.

Ocampo was born in Mexico and moved to California with his family when he was 1, according to Gonzalez, his uncle. His 2006 graduation photograph in the Esperanza High School yearbook shows a young man with close-cropped hair in a jacket and tie. Below his portrait is the quote, “Walk the streets I walked alone, then sit and judge me.”

At the time, according to his uncle and his friend, Ocampo had one goal: getting away from home. His parents, who both worked in factories, were splitting up, and their house in Yorba Linda was being foreclosed on.

So Ocampo joined the U.S. Marine Corps.

It did not go well. “I feel alone in the middle of the desert,” his uncle remembered Ocampo telling him in a phone call from Iraq.

When he returned to the U.S., Ocampo moved into a rented bedroom that he shared with his mother and a younger sister and brother in Yorba Linda. His main activity was playing video games, Gonzalez said. Things got worse when he learned a good friend had been killed in Afghanistan.

Gonzalez said appointments to get his nephew psychological help had been made and canceled several times.

In high school, Ocampo had been reserved and “a little goofy,” Doyle said. But when he returned home from military service, he seemed like a different person.

“You could just tell something was stressed about him,” Doyle said. “I just wanted to be a friend to him.”

Ocampo also donated money to help make a documentary about wounded Marines, according to a website for the unfinished film, titled “Still in the Fight.”

Among those who made the pilgrimage to Berry’s memorial site on Saturday was a homeless man who identified himself only as Kevin.

Even with the arrest, Kevin said he remained uneasy.

“I don’t feel too safe to see my friend has passed away,” he said. “But in God’s giving grace, let’s hope they got the right guy.”

Photos: Serial killer targets O.C. homeless

Times staff writer Catherine Saillant contributed to this report.