SANTA ANA, Calif. — The Iraq War veteran would carefully stalk each of his victims from among the thousands of homeless living in Southern California. He would then stab them repeatedly with a knife that could cut through bone, authorities say.
For his fourth and latest victim, they say, Itzcoatl Ocampo selected a homeless man featured in a Los Angeles Times story about a killing spree that terrorized those living on the streets for weeks.
And Ocampo had plans for more, until he was chased down by bystanders Friday night after the fatal stabbing of a 64-year-old homeless man. He was caught with blood on his hands and face, authorities say.
“He was a monster,” Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas told reporters at a news conference. “He was a terrible threat, particularly to the homeless people in our community.”
Ocampo was charged Tuesday with four counts of murder and special allegations of multiple murders and lying in wait and use of a deadly weapon. Three victims were stabbed more than 40 times each with a single-edged blade at least 7-inches long.
Authorities declined to say whether they had identified a motive. Rackauckas said he had no indication that Ocampo was mentally ill.
Ocampo’s family said the 23-year-old was a troubled man after he returned from Iraq in 2008. Ocampo was being held in isolation at an Orange County jail while officers keep an eye on him 24 hours a day, officials said.
If convicted, Ocampo faces a minimum sentence of life in prison without parole. Authorities have yet to decide whether to seek the death penalty.
Ocampo is due to appear in court on Wednesday, but his attorney said his arraignment would likely be postponed since the attorney was not allowed inside the jail to speak with his client over the weekend and has met with him only briefly.
Defense attorney Randall Longwith declined to comment on the allegations. He said Ocampo is being held in a mental ward.
“I walked in, he was curled up in a blanket,” Longwith said. “He looked like a wet puppy dog.”
The killing spree began in December, prompting police and advocates to fan out across the county known as the home to Disneyland and multimillion-dollar beachfront homes to urge the homeless to sleep in groups or in one of two wintertime shelters.
Ocampo’s arrest Friday was the latest violent crime involving a veteran. This month, an Iraq War veteran fatally shot a ranger at Mount Rainier National Park and died later as he fled police across the mountain’s snow-covered slopes.
Veterans Affairs officials say such high-profile violence can paint an inaccurate picture of returning veterans. The cases, however, raise the issue of veterans having a difficult time adjusting back into civilian life.
To help, the VA created a program to assist veterans in adjusting to their new lives and avoid repeated brushes with the law. “We’ve seen over and over again that once they access those services, we can help them,” VA spokesman Josh Taylor said.
A neighbor who is a Vietnam veteran and Ocampo’s father both tried to push him to get treatment at a VA hospital, but he refused. His father, Refugio Ocampo, said, his son came back from his deployment a changed man. He said his son expressed disillusionment and became ever darker as he struggled to find his way.
After Ocampo was discharged in 2010 and returned home, his parents separated. The same month, one of his friends, a corporal, was killed during combat in Afghanistan. His brother said Ocampo visited his friend’s grave twice a week.
Like the men Ocampo is accused of preying on, his father is homeless. His father lost his job and ended up living under a bridge before finding shelter in the cab of a broken-down big-rig he is helping repair.
Days before his arrest, Ocampo visited his father, warning him of the danger of being homeless. He showed him a picture of one of the slain men, his father said.
“He was very worried about me,” his father said. “I told him, ‘Don’t worry. I’m a survivor. Nothing will happen to me.'”
Itzcoatl Ocampo followed a friend into the Marine Corps right out of high school in 2006. He now lives with his mother, uncle, younger brother and sister in a rented house on a horse ranch surrounded by the sprawling suburbs of Yorba Linda.
His family described a physical condition he suffered in which his hands shook and he suffered headaches. Medical treatments helped until he started drinking heavily, they said.
As fear spread through the homeless community, police last week set up road blockades to seek help from members of the public in tracking down a suspect. Ocampo, who appeared to relish the media spotlight, passed through the checkpoints twice but did not draw attention to himself, Rackauckas said.
Ocampo was arrested Friday night when witnesses chased him down after John Berry was stabbed to death outside a fast-food restaurant in Anaheim, about 26 miles southeast of Los Angeles, authorities said.
A day before he died, Berry had filed a report with police saying he believed someone was trying to follow him. It was one of nearly 600 leads and tips that officers received.
“It is unfortunate that we didn’t get to him before the suspect did,” Anaheim Police Chief John Welter said.
In addition to Berry, James Patrick McGillivray, 53, was killed near a shopping center in Placentia on Dec. 20 and Lloyd Middaugh, 42, was found near a riverbed trail in Anaheim on Dec. 28. The third victim, Paulus Smit, 57, was stabbed to death outside a library in Yorba Linda on Dec. 30.
Smit became homeless last year after his girlfriend’s home was shuttered by code enforcement officers because of hoarding and clutter. Ever since, the father of three had moved between the homes of two of his children and spent some time on the streets, his daughter Julia Smit-Lozano said.
Smit-Lozano, who spent the Christmas holiday with her father days before he was killed, welcomed the news of Ocampo’s arrest. “I’m glad the streets are a little safer for the rest of the homeless,” she said.
Associated Press writer Kevin Freking in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.