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The Obsidian Serpent

A homeless father, a Marine’s death, and the making of a serial killer.

By León Krauze

The Atavist Magazine, No. 73


León Krauze is an author and journalist based in Los Angeles. He has written for The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, and The New Yorker. He holds the Wallis Annenberg Chair for Journalism at the University of Southern California. He is also a news anchor for Univision.

Editor: Seyward Darby
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Tekendra Parmar
Images: Associated Press

Acknowledgements: This story was produced with support from the Ford Foundation as part of a project on migrants and migration policy run by the journalism program and international-studies division at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) in Mexico City. Project coordination was provided by Carlos Bravo Regidor, research assistance by Lauren Eades and Irving Huerta.

Published in November 2017. Design updated in 2021.

1.

Around 9 p.m. on the chilly night of December 20, 2011, outside a strip mall in Placentia, California, James McGillivray lay down to go to sleep. Fifty-three years old, with a furrowed face, a graying beard, and disheveled, thinning hair, McGillivray was a familiar presence in the homeless community that lived along the Santa Ana River south of Los Angeles. That evening he’d been seen wandering around a liquor store. Now he settled onto a blanket spread out on a patch of sidewalk behind one of the mall’s exterior pillars, beneath the glimmer of fluorescent lamps. It was the last light McGillivray would ever see.

A wiry figure dressed in a dark hooded sweatshirt and gloves stood in the shadows of a nearby alleyway, watching and waiting. When McGillivray dozed off, the figure pounced. He pinned the homeless man down with a knee to the chest and unleashed a shocking barrage of violence. In the span of two minutes, he stabbed McGillivray 52 times in the upper torso and head. The assailant started out using one hand, then expertly passed the blade, a heavy-gauge Ka-Bar knife capable of piercing bone, to the other. Finally, he grasped the weapon with both hands and pounded away at his victim. After desperately flailing his arms and legs, McGillivray died within the first 40 seconds of the attack. The brutal murder was captured on grainy video by one of the shopping center’s surveillance cameras.

A week later it happened again, this time underneath an overpass in Anaheim, about five miles southwest of Placentia. The victim was Lloyd Middaugh, 42, a registered sex offender. Unable to find a job or a home, he lived in local shelters. On the evening of December 27, he called his mother, upset, she would later say, that he couldn’t secure a bed anywhere for the night. Then Middaugh, who was six-foot-four and weighed more than 300 pounds, roosted under the 91 freeway and read a book until he fell asleep.

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When the killer approached, he paced around Middaugh, assessing the man’s enormous size. At the sound of footsteps, Middaugh awoke and stood up. The killer attacked from behind, stabbing his victim’s neck as Middaugh frantically tried to protect himself and pleaded for his life. When the confrontation ended, a full five minutes later, Middaugh was dead. He’d been stabbed 60 times, several of his ribs were broken, his neck and head were battered, and he had a gash on his right hand. An autopsy would show that the killer’s blade had sliced Middaugh’s thyroid gland and fractured his right temporal bone before penetrating his brain.

In hindsight it became obvious that the murders were linked. At the time, though, the idea was a hard sell among law-enforcement officials. Homeless people were frequent targets of random violence. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, between 1999 and 2010 there had been nearly 1,200 attacks nationwide, with California seeing the largest share (225) of any state. Still, Anaheim detective Daron Wyatt, a serious man with a thick mustache who spoke in a confident staccato, had a hunch that the back-to-back killings weren’t coincidental. The same kind of knife had been used in both murders, which were uncommonly vicious. What if McGillivray and Middaugh had died at the hands of one man at the start of a spree?

Wyatt approached his department’s top brass and laid out the case for why he thought the deaths were calculated—and why there might be more. His boss “kind of laughed at me,” Wyatt recalled, “because we hadn’t had a serial killer in Orange County in over 25 years.”

2.

A few miles from the crime scenes, in the city of Fullerton, Refugio Ocampo lived in the cab of a broken-down truck with smashed headlights. A tall, slender man with the dignified air of the history teacher he’d once been, Refugio was homeless but refused to look unkempt. He wore clean white shirts that peeked out from beneath a blue all-weather jacket and kept his gaunt face impeccably shaved beneath a bowl of dark hair. He heard about the murders through the transient community’s grapevine: a network of people who sought shelter in the same nooks, under the same overhangs, in the same makeshift encampments. Refugio assumed that the over-the-top story of a madman with a knife had been made up, or at least exaggerated. It wasn’t until his eldest son showed him press clippings about the murders that he believed the sensational rumors.

Refugio was no stranger to violence. Where he came from, he often said, it didn’t take much for people to kill each other. He was born on July 4, 1962, in Zacapoxtepec, a town of a few hundred people in the state of Guerrero, historically one of Mexico’s most violent regions. Refugio’s first childhood memory was of a funeral procession. When he was six, his mother brought him to a window of their home to watch men walking in the street bearing a large box. Refugio asked what it all meant. A whole family had been murdered, she told him, and a grandfather and his young grandson were inside the box, about to be buried together.

Refugio wanted a better life, and a safer one. In 1987, he married a woman named Lilia. They lived in greater Mexico City, where he taught history in a public school. “I had eight brothers, so my mother raised me as if I were a boy,” Lilia said in a recent conversation. “Refugio showed me how to cook, how to clean. He taught me everything.” In March 1988, the couple welcomed their first child, Itzcoatl. Refugio chose the name, an homage to the Aztec war hero and tlatoani (“great ruler”) who launched an imperial expansion by allying with two other indigenous nations in the early 15th century. Four months after Itzcoatl’s birth, Refugio immigrated illegally to California, seeking what so many people do in coming to America: opportunity and stability. He caught up with a cousin who was already in Orange County and found work as a dishwasher. He never resented his dramatic occupational shift. On the contrary, he felt liberated. He wanted to earn his pay through labor.

Lilia joined him two months later. She crossed the border with a group of men in the early hours of a cold, dark morning. Lilia carried Itzcoatl in her arms, handing him off to another traveler when she had to jump a fence to reach the United States. “That’s the only moment I let them take my boy away from me,” she remembered.

Refugio found a new job in a plastics factory. He practiced English and read up on American history in his free time. Lilia faced a steeper learning curve. She relied on friends and family to care for Itzcoatl while she studied English, but she never mastered it. Six years later, Lilia gave birth to a second son, Mixcoatl, named after the Aztec god of the hunt. Half a decade on, a daughter named Citlaly (“star” in Nahuatl, one of Mexico’s indigenous languages) completed the family. On her right shoulder, Lilia got a tattoo of a triangle with her children’s names sketched in cursive, one on each side.

The Ocampos encouraged cultural assimilation. Itzcoatl was known as Izzy to his friends, Mixcoatl as Mix. (Citlaly had to settle for the less colloquial Citla.) Refugio purchased a letter attesting that he had worked in the fields of Southern California, which afforded him permanent residency under a federal stipulation offering certain types of workers a path to legalization. He bought a small house and, after earning a job promotion, upgraded to a larger one. Itzcoatl, a funny, independent boy, eventually became a citizen.

The Ocampos’ lives coasted along until the recession in the late aughts, when Refugio was fired and couldn’t get back on his feet. According to family members he fell prey to drugs, developing an addiction to methamphetamines that made him volatile and untrustworthy. “He stopped taking adequate care of himself and his kids,” Lilia said. Refugio couldn’t afford to pay the mortgage on his family’s house and was evicted. While he lived on the streets, his wife, Mixcoatl, and Citlaly moved in with Lilia’s brothers, one of whom wanted nothing to do with Refugio. Still, Lilia stood by her struggling husband, bringing him food and clothes at homeless camps and, later, at the abandoned rig.

Itzcoatl was in Iraq when his family began to splinter. He’d joined the Marines straight out of high school in 2006, one of 4,889 Hispanics who enlisted that year. By the winter of 2011, he was back living with his mother. He worried about Refugio and visited him often at the rig, where they talked about life before war, addiction, and other hardships. When Itzcoatl showed Refugio articles about the recent murders of homeless men, he implored his father to keep his guard up.

Itzcoatl was shy and bespectacled. Adjusting to civilian life had proved difficult. He passed the time drinking with old friends. Among them was Eder Herrera, who would later wind up behind bars, accused of killing his own mother and brother in a fit of domestic violence. Itzcoatl struggled to hold down a job. Yet with the holiday season in full swing, he donated what cash, toys, and food he could to the needy. Sometimes he drove as far as Van Nuys or Santa Monica, about 45 miles north, to drop off supplies with organizations.

Refugio thought his son generous. But he also noticed that the 23-year-old had a drinking problem—the sort of thing that if he wasn’t careful could land him on the streets, vulnerable like his father, the people for whom he collected donations, and the two men who’d been knifed to death.

3.

Quick to laugh, with a gap-toothed smile, long wavy hair, and an overgrown goatee, Paulus Cornelius Smit had battled drug addiction and drifted in and out of homelessness for several years. Through much of 2011, the 57-year-old shared a dilapidated home with his girlfriend, but when authorities red-tagged the house, indicating that it was uninhabitable, Smit suddenly had no place to live. There were brief reprieves: He spent Christmas, for instance, with Julia Smit-Lozano, the eldest of three daughters from a previous relationship, who had recently escaped homelessness herself.

Smit traveled on a bicycle, perhaps his most prized possession, and he often passed his days at Yorba Linda’s quiet public library, a faded pink building at a busy intersection off Orange County’s Imperial Highway. On the afternoon of December 30, while at the library, he realized that his bike had been stolen. Instead of venturing away on foot, Smit phoned his youngest daughter to ask for a ride. “She was unable to pick him up,” Julia Smit-Lozano recalled, “and by the time I was off work and ready to pick him up, it was too late.” The missing bicycle was a ploy. Someone had taken it to prevent Smit from going anywhere—someone who’d been watching him for hours, maybe days, and seeking the perfect moment to strike.

Smit walked out of the library, went around back, and sat down in an obscured spot near the bottom of a stairwell to wait for his daughter. That’s where the killer attacked, armed with the thick Ka-Bar. He stabbed Smit 56 times in the back, head, and neck, fracturing his ribcage, slashing his heart, and severing his jugular vein. The man whom his daughters called “Papa” died before 5 p.m., while the library was open. If Smit screamed, no one heard him.

After the third murder, detective Wyatt’s hunch was verifiable fact: Orange County had a serial killer, targeting a population that was difficult to protect from harm under even the best of circumstances. And the criminal was growing more brazen.

After the third murder, detective Wyatt’s hunch was verifiable fact: Orange County had a serial killer targeting a population that was difficult to protect from harm under even the best of circumstances. 

By the beginning of 2012, three municipal police departments—in Anaheim, Placentia, and Brea—along with the Orange County sheriff’s office and the FBI, had organized the 15-member Homeless Homicide Investigative Task Force. Wyatt took the lead. The group set up checkpoints on county roads, stopping hundreds of cars each night to question drivers about any suspicious individuals or circumstances they’d come across. Authorities and volunteers distributed whistles and flashlights to the homeless and advised them to remain in groups if they couldn’t find beds in shelters, which reported a 40 percent surge in demand. The story of the serial killer leaped from the pages of the Orange County Register to national outlets. “People are very, very anxious about the situation,” Jim Palmer, president of the Orange County Rescue Mission, told The New York Times. “This is just so evil that somebody would go after the least, the last, and the lost of our community.”

Itzcoatl Ocampo visited his father again not long after the third murder. This time, instead of press clippings, he carried an FBI flier emblazoned with photographs of the victims. Leaning against the light blue door of Refugio’s truck, Itzcoatl showed the flier to his father and pleaded once more for him to stay clean and be vigilant. Refugio tried to reassure him. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m a survivor. Nothing will happen to me.”

4.

Not everyone heeded the authorities’ warnings. Among them was John Berry, a Vietnam veteran who sported a bushy white beard. An amateur astronomer and bird watcher, Berry loved being outside, where he could look at the sky day or night. On the morning of January 5, 2012, he was in a public rest area overlooking the Santa Ana River when Anaheim Police sergeant Mike Lynch approached him. Los Angeles Times photographer Allen Schaben, who had tagged along to cover law enforcement’s outreach effort in the homeless community, captured the moment. It was an eloquent image: Berry sitting comfortably on a tarp with his legs outstretched and a rumpled khaki fishing hat perched on his head. A yellow bicycle was parked such that it afforded him some shade from the winter sun while he listened to Lynch explain the threat. Berry said that he would be just fine as he was, even with a serial killer on the prowl. “We couldn’t force him to get off the streets,” Wyatt later told me.

Schaben’s picture of Berry looking carefree and defiant was printed in an article about the slayings. The killer must have seen it, because Berry, 64, quickly sensed that something was wrong. In the following days, he called the police to say that he felt like he was being watched as he moved among his favorite haunts in Anaheim and Yorba Linda. Police again advised Berry to seek shelter, and again he did not.

For a week, Orange County held its breath. No homeless men were murdered. Then, around 8:15 p.m. on Friday, January 13, Berry was pushing his bike toward a trash enclosure behind a Carl’s Jr. fast-food joint, located in the middle of a shopping center’s parking lot, when a hooded figure rushed toward him on foot. The assailant knocked Berry to the ground, pulled out a knife, and stabbed him to death, continuing his frenzy for a few harrowing minutes after the victim’s heart had stopped beating.

This time, though, the attacker was sloppy in choosing where to kill. Customers milled around the complex, and one of them witnessed the murder in progress. The man ran into a nearby pharmacy yelling, “The bum killer is outside!”

Donny Hopkins, a forklift driver who was shopping in the pharmacy, darted out to the parking lot and saw the assailant on top of Berry. He screamed at the attacker, who immediately stood up and ran toward a mobile-home park adjacent to the shopping center. Unarmed, Hopkins gave chase, running at full tilt. As he went, he misdialed 911 twice on his cell phone before managing to get through and share his location with the dispatcher. He provided a quick description of the suspect, who had shed his dark sweatshirt to reveal a red short-sleeved T-shirt. Based on Hopkins’s information, police surrounded the area and found the killer as he walked nonchalantly down a street—hoping, perhaps, that without his hood and by seeming composed he would avoid suspicion.

Youthfully handsome, with a long, angular face, deep-set dark eyes, and brown hair buzzed down to the scalp, the suspect had blood on his arms and hands.

He didn’t put up a fight when the cops grabbed him. In fact he was docile, “very collected and cooperative,” Wyatt told me. Youthfully handsome, with a long, angular face, deep-set dark eyes, and brown hair buzzed down to the scalp, the suspect had blood on his arms and hands. Nearby, police found a backpack, gloves, and a belt with a sheath that contained the Ka-Bar knife. The killer had tossed them as he fled.

The suspect was taken to the Anaheim police department, where Wyatt began his interrogation, hoping to develop a profile of a man capable of astonishing rage. It wasn’t hard. Dressed in light blue detention garb, the Orange County serial killer spoke for five hours straight, well into the morning of January 14, after waiving his right to remain silent. He wore old-fashioned, oversize prescription glasses and addressed Wyatt as “sir.” One by one, he candidly walked the detective through the killings.

Toward the end of the interview, Wyatt asked the suspect if he knew right from wrong.

“Yes, sir,” the man replied, nodding vehemently.

“Do you think what you’ve done is right or wrong?” Wyatt asked.

The killer took a beat to think, then looked at the detective. “Wrong,” he answered, “but it had to be done.”

“Why? To satisfy your needs?”

“No,” he said quickly. “They were making the place look bad.”

“Really, what you were doing, you were helping clean up the county?”

“In a way, sir, yes.”

In the more than 12 hours he would spend with the suspect in the coming days, Wyatt’s opinion of him solidified. “He knew exactly what he was doing,” the detective told me. This was a cold-blooded killer in full control of his emotions and mental capacity. He chose victims who “were available and vulnerable,” Wyatt explained. It was as simple as that.

As for understanding his desire to purify Orange Country by way of murder, that would require digging into the man’s past. To do that, Wyatt needed a name. The suspect willingly gave it in their first meeting: Itzcoatl Ocampo.

“Itzcoatl,” Refugio would later whisper to me, recalling his son’s arrest. “It means ‘obsidian serpent.’”

5.

Driving home late that Friday evening, Raúl González, Lilia Ocampo’s brother, heard the unmistakable buzz of news helicopters hovering near Imperial Highway. González steered clear of the commotion and any police roadblocks that might accompany it. When he finally arrived at his house, he saw several white cars parked around the property. Police approached him and demanded that he let them inside.

Citlaly and Mixcoatl were home. González asked his niece where Lilia was. “She’s with my father,” Citlaly, barely a teenager, replied. Annoyed, González called his sister’s cell phone. “Did you know police are here while you’re over there with that asshole?” he asked her. Lilia came home quickly. When she arrived and saw two of her children sitting on the couch, terrified, she thought of the one that wasn’t there. Itzcoatl had gone out walking alone a few hours before. He did that a lot lately. Lilia thought some tragedy had befallen him.

Then, as the police began asking her questions, someone turned on the television. An evening news report sputtered to life and showed Itzcoatl sitting on a curb, surrounded by cops. He was the suspect in the string of murders that had spurred a countywide manhunt.

Lilia was stunned. She’d been sharing a bedroom with all three of her children; Itzcoatl slept on the floor without complaint. She had seen a Ka-Bar in his possession, but he’d told her that it was just combat equipment. Lilia knew that her son had been troubled since returning from the military, but she’d never thought him violent. Surely, as his mother, she would have known if he was capable of murder. For Refugio, who soon learned of his son’s arrest, the thought that Itzcoatl could kill innocent people was inconceivable. “I always knew who my children were,” he told me. Besides, why would Itzcoatl warn his father about the killer if he was the killer?

Lilia knew that her son had been troubled since returning from the military, but she’d never thought him violent. Surely, as his mother, she would have known if he was capable of murder.

According to Wyatt, a search of the house turned up boots with DNA from two of the murder victims, a knife sharpener for the Ka-Bar—on which forensic experts would later find genetic material from all but one of the deceased—and documents about notorious killers from whom it seemed Itzcoatl had sought inspiration. In grand jury testimony the following month, Wyatt would describe how Itzcoatl had intended to emulate Charles Whitman, a former Marine sharpshooter, known as the Texas Tower Sniper, who in 1966 had killed 13 people at the University of Texas. When Wyatt asked Itzcoatl why he’d used a knife, he made a reference to the Joker, as played by actor Heath Ledger in director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. “‘A knife is more personal.’ He actually said that in his interview,” Wyatt told me. “He quoted The Dark Knight.” (The exact line from the film is “Do you want to know why I use a knife? Guns are too quick. You can’t savor all the little emotions. In, you see, in their last moments, people show you who they really are.”)

After Itzcoatl’s arrest, the media hounded the Ocampos. Refugio in particular became a recurring tragic figure on local newscasts: the homeless father of the serial killer who targeted homeless men. On the morning of January 16, Orange County Register videographer Eugene Garcia found Refugio standing outside his rig in Fullerton. He explained that Itzcoatl was “a role model” for his family.

“Do you believe he’s innocent?” Garcia inquired.

“I don’t know,” Refugio answered. “He was worried for me.”

The only possible explanation for his son’s behavior, he continued, lay with the Marines. Something must have happened to his son in the service, because he committed the murders after he was discharged. “They killed the person he was,” Refugio declared.

When Wyatt appeared before the grand jury, he would say that the “primary reason” for the carnage was that Itzcoatl had a taste for blood that his time in Iraq didn’t sate, so he’d fashioned himself into the assassin he’d always wanted to be. He even researched “human anatomy on the computer,” Wyatt added, so that he would know “where the heart was” in his victims. The detective pointed to an exchange from Itzcoatl’s confession: “What made you want to kill somebody? Was it the fact that you’re a Marine?” Wyatt asked, to which Itzcoatl replied, “Probably, sir. Yes, sir. I didn’t get to kill when I was in… I look at other Marines and want to be like them.”

The truth of the matter, though, wasn’t so pat. The effort to untangle Itzcoatl’s hostility, grief, trauma, fear, and dejection would require looking further back than to his stint in the Marines—it would mean returning to his youth, particularly to his relationship with his best friend.

6.

As a child, Itzcoatl had a close-knit circle of friends whose center of gravity was Claudio Patiño IV. Born to a family with a history of armed service, Claudio grew up yearning to enlist. His father, a Mexican immigrant, had been a cadet at a military academy; he kept the gala uniform he wore as a teenager in immaculate shape, along with a stack of sepia photographs of himself performing acrobatic feats during military parades in Guadalajara. Claudio came up with elaborate warlike scenarios that he and his friends acted out in his family’s dusty backyard in Yorba Linda. He also started a clandestine brawling club, organizing bare-knuckle rounds among neighborhood boys. At age 12, Claudio refused orthodontic treatment to fix severely crooked teeth because he was afraid that the procedure might go wrong and leave him deformed or unable to use his jaw properly, disqualifying him from enlisting in the Marines one day.

Itzcoatl idolized Claudio. González, Itzcoatl’s uncle, described the pair as “inseparable” in childhood. “They got along like brothers. It was an enviable friendship,” he told me. Evelyn Patiño, Claudio’s mother, remembered Itzcoatl as a “respectful and quiet” child who often slept over, playing video games late into the night. In middle school, one of Claudio’s sisters invited Itzcoatl to her quinceañera, a traditional 15th-birthday and coming-of-age party for Latin American girls. He went with Refugio, who delivered an impromptu speech in celebration of the families’ bond.

Claudio and Itzcoatl shared a keen sense of bicultural belonging. Itzcoatl kept in touch with family in Mexico, whom he visited in the summers. Along with posters of U.S. helicopters and Marines, Claudio decorated his bedroom with pictures of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa and a ceramic carving of a clash between a Spanish conquistador and an Aztec warrior. Next to his bed, he placed an ornate replica of a sacrificial knife that he’d bought on a family trip to the ancient city of Teotihuacan. Later in his youth, Claudio would get an American eagle tattooed on one of his arms and a Mexican eagle on the other.

Yet the boys were an odd couple. Built like an athlete, lean and muscular, with a square jaw and handsome face despite his warped teeth, Claudio cut an appealing figure. Itzcoatl, by contrast, was slight and soft-spoken. Brian Doyle, a school friend, would later describe him to the Associated Press as a “tall, geeky kid, really fun-loving.” Itzcoatl dreamed of going to college, even if it meant parting ways with Claudio.

Although Itzcoatl was barely 13 at the time, the scene of the World Trade Center towers falling “really shook him,” Lilia said. Like many young Americans, he interpreted the attack as a call to arms.

That changed after 9/11. Although Itzcoatl was barely 13 at the time, the scene of the World Trade Center towers falling “really shook him,” Lilia told me. Like many young Americans, Itzcoatl interpreted the attack as a call to arms. Lilia and Refugio disapproved. “I never saw him as a soldier,” his mother said. “He was calm and noble.” But Itzcoatl ignored his parents. At 18, he enlisted in the Marines alongside Claudio.

The friends dreamed of a brotherly, patriotic adventure. After completing their training, however, their paths diverged. Claudio quickly won acclaim and respect. He became a scout sniper, adept at reconnaissance and marksmanship. Nate Coffey, who met Claudio before they deployed to Afghanistan and who later became his team leader, described him as a natural soldier. “He was a fighter before he was a Marine,” Coffey wrote in an email. “Joining the military and becoming a Scout Sniper merely lent him additional tools with which to fight. He was one of our best shooters (and that’s saying something in a sniper platoon), and he was the one I picked to coach the team in hand-to-hand training. In short, he was good at killing, whether it was up close or far away.” Coffey added, “He was more aggressive than a wolverine drinking a Red Bull.”

Itzcoatl’s experience was diametrically different. He deployed to Iraq in March 2008 as part of the First Medical Battalion, serving as a motor-vehicle operator—that is, a driver. He didn’t take well to the unpredictability and hypermasculinity of military life. Although he hid it from his family, he was unhappy that he and Claudio weren’t serving side by side and that he was limited to transporting supplies and personnel. González told me of a conversation he had with his nephew in which “he said it was deeply depressing.” Itzcoatl “used to say that they had to dig holes in the ground to build shelters in the desert, and they slept inside to avoid sandstorms. They were suddenly awakened by bombing. He seemed scared.”

Barely a month after deploying, Itzcoatl learned that his father had lost his job. On a phone call, he listened to his mother’s unsettling account of the situation: Refugio had fallen into financial trouble, and he was still doing drugs. (Before leaving for Iraq, Itzcoatl had found a crack pipe in his father’s car.) He wasn’t always sleeping at home. Lilia told me that Itzcoatl took the news of his father’s unraveling with characteristic stoicism. He kept any deeper feelings to himself. But not for long.

Two months later, at Camp Al Taqqadum, an abandoned Iraqi base 70 miles west of Baghdad repurposed by U.S. forces for logistical support, Itzcoatl loaded and then pointed an M16 rifle at another Marine. He claimed he was just clowning around. His superiors didn’t care. What he’d done was a punishable offense. Itzcoatl’s misconduct earned him a loss of rank—from lance corporal to private first class, with a pay reduction—in late May 2008 through nonjudicial punishment, an administrative disciplinary procedure. He took responsibility for his actions in a signed confession and connected the incident to his family’s troubles:

I know that this was very unprofessional, dangerous, irresponsible, and idiotic of me.… I went to Condition 1 [loading the rifle] because I took a joke way too serious. I was angry because in the back of my mind I was just thinking of my problems back home; for example, my father lost his job and my family is having financial problems. I did not know my fellow Marines could help me out with my problems, but they can and have. I am taking anger management, stress management and other classes to help me manage and cope with these issues. This way something like this will never happen again.

He concluded, “It is not me or in my nature to behave like this.”

Itzcoatl didn’t tell his family about the situation. That June, he recorded a Father’s Day video for Refugio. “Thank you for everything you have done, Dad,” he said in hesitant Spanish, sitting in a poorly lit room in front of an American flag. “I love you very much. I’m doing well here, I’m OK. Just three months left and then I’ll be back.” He then read Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham for his sister, who was almost nine at the time. “Don’t worry about me,” he repeated several times, like a mantra. “I’m OK.”

7.

At the end of his six-month tour, Itzcoatl returned to California, where he remained enlisted at Camp Pendleton, south of where his family lived. Corporal Bonnie Tisdale, who supervised him on the base, said she watched him decline emotionally. “His demeanor just kind of changed,” Tisdale told me. At first he was a disciplined, quiet young man who could also be funny and who would “offer you the shirt off his back or his last dollar.” Then, according to Tisdale, he grew bitter and depressed. He got in trouble for odd, minor infractions, like lying about where he’d parked his car when it was due for inspection.

When he was released from active duty in July 2010, right on schedule, the military designated him fully qualified to reenlist, should he choose to. There were no red flags on his record. Still, Tisdale worried about his transition to civilian life, which is difficult for any soldier. “If you don’t have a degree, you’re struggling to find a job. Your friends that you knew before the Marines, they don’t really understand you, so it’s hard. You feel alone,” she told me. “Ocampo was an awkward guy to begin with. I can’t imagine what it was like for him to get out.”

There was another reason to worry: A month prior to Itzcoatl’s discharge, Claudio had been killed in action. On the morning of June 22, he was with his platoon near Musah Qala, a village in Helmand Province, feeling restless. “If the team was sitting around not shooting bad guys, he would take half of them and find a new place to attack,” Coffey, his team leader, told me. Around noon, Claudio set his sights on a nearby hill crest and led three members of the group to scope it out. “I remember him getting to that hilltop and collapsing, and I heard the automatic gunfire a half-second later,” Coffey recalled. It was a Taliban ambush. According to the military news outlet Stars and Stripes, “a bullet first grazed Patiño’s arm, but the second ripped a path through his upper torso.” Lance corporal Nat Small, who was with Claudio at the time, told the publication, “He basically fatally exposed himself before the rest of us could. He definitely laid down his life for the team.” In September 2010, Claudio was posthumously honored with a Bronze Star.

When Itzcoatl learned of his friend’s death, he was devastated. “He called me and said, ‘Mom, you won’t believe this, but they killed Claudio,’” Lilia remembered. “He was crying, and so was I. He kept asking why it had been Claudio and not him.” Refugio told me that Claudio’s death was the beginning of the end for his son. “That’s what lit the wick,” he said.

Itzcoatl began telling his parents he felt useless and unworthy. Money ran out quickly. “I had to drag him to the unemployment office and Veterans Affairs,” Refugio said. “I had to help him fill out applications, and he kept telling me, ‘Dad, they’re not going to give me a job.’” Rather than looking for work, he often spent afternoons in Yorba Linda’s public library—outside which he’d later murder Smit, his third victim—reading with his little sister. According to Mixcoatl, his brother was withdrawn and drinking too much, but he “never saw any evil in him, anything bad.”

“His greatest sorrow came from the fact that he hadn’t been there for Claudio when he died. He wanted to be there to help him get back on his feet, help him stand up.”

Some days, Itzcoatl took Lilia to her job at a hardware company and then drove the 35 miles from Yorba Linda to Riverside National Cemetery, where Claudio was buried. He would stand at his friend’s grave alone, thinking. He also went to see Claudio’s parents. Evelyn Patiño recalled how during one visit, Itzcoatl told her that “his greatest sorrow came from the fact that he hadn’t been there for Claudio when he died. He wanted to be there to help him get back on his feet, help him stand up. It pained him so much.”

At home his family began to notice bizarre behavior, signals that he was traumatized, depressed, or both. “He had horrible nightmares, truly ugly dreams. He never told me what they were exactly, but he did say they were horrible: bloody people all over,” Lilia recalled. Itzcoatl said he had splitting headaches and kept pointing to a recurring twitch above his right eye. “One day,” Lilia remembered, “he called me to say that he was looking for bombs in the house.” During the day, he sometimes talked to himself. But he never hinted at a desire to hurt anyone.  

If only his family had been able to read his journal, a brief but harrowing private account of what was running through Itzcoatl’s mind leading up to the murders. He turned to it often, putting down in jittery handwriting his muddled delusions and feelings of resentment and self-loathing. He also wrote about his urge to kill.

8.

I first met Refugio and Lilia on a Saturday morning last winter, behind a car-repair shop in Placentia where Refugio had been living for the better part of a year. The owner was a friend who’d offered him a place to stay, an old RV, in exchange for guarding the lot. Refugio acknowledged that there wasn’t much to guard. Littered with rusted fenders and gas pumps, the place looked like a scrapyard.

For my visit, he’d arranged a couple of chairs, a stool, and a wooden table covered with a tan piece of plastic that flapped in the wind. It was cold, so he’d lit a fire inside a makeshift pit: two logs thrown into a circular metal planter. Refugio wore a gray pinstriped suit coat over black pants, both a couple of sizes too big, with an untucked white shirt and a pair of worn brown loafers, their dry leather tassels curled up. Lilia, who was living in a nearby apartment, wore heavy makeup and sat with her arms hugging her body. In her hands was an envelope holding crumpled pages of writing: the journal. It was the first time the Ocampos had shown it to a reporter since Lilia found it in the wake of her son’s arrest, wedged behind a seat in her truck, and given it to his legal team.

“We didn’t know he had written any of this,” Refugio said. Lilia nodded. “He shares everything he went through,” she explained, handing me the envelope. “It’s also a sort of confession,” Refugio acknowledged as I began to read. The first entry began, “Based on a true story.” The pages weren’t dated, but Lilia said that she assumed Itzcoatl had written them in late 2011.

Itzcoatl identified as a “POG,” or “people other than grunts,” a derogatory term used in the Marines to describe support personnel who rarely engage in combat. “Joined to be a fucking killer…but then ended up somewhere where I would be saving lives rather than taking ‘em,” he lamented. “Ended up ass-fucking POG. Dealing with motherfuckers who speak poor English yet somehow managed to be high-ups.” When he wrote about losing rank after the nonjudicial punishment process, he displayed an acute sense of injustice that morphed into an elaborate paranoid conspiracy. “I was all alone with the enemy who turned out to be my own co-workers, my own roommate and my own friends,” he wrote. “It took me a while to figure out that my whole life was a set up.”

Later, Itzcoatl reflected, “I came out [of the military] all fucked-up, normal before and now just fucked-up.” He described his state of mind as “most of the time, depressed.” Sometimes he speculated about why he felt so terrible: “Possibly a tumor in my head because I have headaches almost every damn day,” and “Is there some device inside me that gives my location, takes my pulse or gives me funny feelings?” He also worried that he would wind up like his father. “Now the next in line to be a bum,” he wrote.

“Could you imagine how the world would be if you were still here and not me? Utopia. Every day I think about you and blame myself.”

Often he talked about Claudio and survivor’s guilt. “Even before the Corps you were or still is a fucking hero,” he wrote, addressing his dead friend directly. “Look at the cheers you got at your graduation. Either way it wasn’t your time to go. I just happened to fuck things up.” Why he felt responsible for Claudio’s death wasn’t clear. In a particularly melancholy entry, Itzcoatl said he wished he were dead instead. “Every time I see your house I tell myself how much bullshit it is that I’m here and your [gone]. How fucked up it is that they picked you and not me. Could you imagine how the world would be if you were still here and not me? Utopia. Every day I think about you and blame myself,” he wrote. “I’ll only get over you and all of this shit is when I’m gone.”

In other entries, Itzcoatl showed latent jealousy that Claudio was a native-born American. “Since you were born here I’m guessing you didn’t have to deal w/ the fucking racism,” he wrote before speculating about his own fate. “I’m either going back to Mexico walking or by bus where from there I’ll die of either starvation or someone will just shoot me or stab me. I really am pathetic.”

The last pages of the journal revealed an impulse to do something that would address his anger and pain. “I always ask myself why you guys never shot me when you had the chance,” Itzcoatl wrote, as if addressing his fellow Marines. “If you’re me, it’s better off that you’re dead,” he continued. “There is only 3 ways of dying: by police, some random person or by yourself. Death won’t come so I might as well give it a call. Why? My head is fucked up.”

But while those words seemed to indicate that he was planning to kill or harm himself, he hadn’t followed through. Instead he’d turned his rage outward, perhaps hoping to stifle it by committing violence against the very people he feared becoming: homeless men, rootless and forgotten. Near the end of the journal, he seemed to obliquely describe his plans for a murder spree by way of a popular ad slogan. “I hate to say it’s time to make this town a scary place,” he wrote. “Gots to kill a few Pepsis, so hopefully it’ll refresh my world.” (“Pepsi” is street slang for a drug addict.)

By then, however, Itzcoatl had likely already killed for the first time. During the lengthy interrogations after his arrest, he surprised law enforcement by confessing to two gruesome murders that predated his attack on Jim McGillivray. The victims weren’t homeless men. They were his friends.

9.

It turned out that Itzcoatl, fresh out of Camp Pendleton, had worked briefly with his friend Eder Herrera and often visited the house that Herrera shared with his elder brother Juan and their mother, Raquel. “They realized Ocampo was just getting paranoid and weird,” John Burton, Herrera’s lawyer, told me. Itzcoatl would point at cars parked across the street and claim he was being watched. So Herrera, Juan, and Raquel decided to ask him not to come around. According to a detective who worked the case, Itzcoatl felt “disrespected” but acquiesced. A few months passed, during which he wasn’t in contact with the family.

Then, on the night of October 25, 2011, Itzcoatl went to Herrera’s home in Yorba Linda. He was planning to kill his former friends, he later told police, because they “seemed to have an attitude.” Herrera wasn’t home, so Itzcoatl waited outside. Then he grew impatient. “He went in and killed the other two,” Burton told me. “Ocampo started stabbing the mom, and then the brother came in and he started stabbing him.” When Juan tried to escape, Itzcoatl chased him and pulled him back inside. Autopsies would later find close to 100 stab wounds between the two victims.

Itzcoatl was planning to kill his former friends, he later told police, because they “seemed to have an attitude.”

Herrera was quickly arrested for the murders of his mother and brother and locked away. A 911 caller who said he was a neighbor, but who used a pay phone about a mile away, had reported loud noises coming from the residence. (According to Burton, the caller was Itzcoatl, who the lawyer also believes planted a kitchen knife at the scene to make the cops think they already had the murder weapon.) An eyewitness across the street claimed to have seen Herrera dragging something large—Juan’s body—into the house, accompanied by cries of “help.” When police picked him up, Herrera said that he’d spent the night at a friend’s place. But he raised suspicions when he admitted that he’d tried to go home some time after midnight. When he saw cop cars everywhere, he feared that he would be arrested because he was undocumented. Herrera said he drove away from the scene rather than figure out what had happened in his home.

Herrera swore that he had nothing to do with the killings. He didn’t know who the perpetrator might be. While he sat in jail, the idea that Itzcoatl could have murdered his family never crossed Herrera’s mind. “Eder didn’t want to hang out with Ocampo anymore and thought he was weird,” Burton told me, but his client considered “nothing even remotely approaching the fact that Ocampo could do something like that.”

Had it not been for the witness who saw John Berry die behind the Carl’s Jr., Itzcoatl might have gotten away with the double murder. Herrera might have rotted in prison. Instead, after Itzcoatl confessed, police found DNA from Herrera’s mother and brother on the Ka-Bar. Herrera went on to win a public settlement of $700,000 for unjust imprisonment, though the authorities never admitted any negligence in the case. “They were so sure from the outset they had the right guy, they didn’t entertain the evidence that led away from him,” Burton told the press. “If they’d gotten the right guy, [Ocampo] wouldn’t have killed four other people.”

10.

In January 2012, Itzcoatl was charged with murder, special allegations in multiple murders, lying in wait, and personal use of a deadly weapon. The Orange County district attorney decided to seek the death penalty. According to Wyatt, it was what Itzcoatl wanted. The young man had told his interrogator that he “deserved the death penalty” by “lethal injection, or whatever is quickest.”

In court, however, Itzcoatl pleaded not guilty. His lawyer told reporters that he was considering mounting an insanity defense. It’s possible that Itzcoatl was experiencing the onset of mental illness at the time of the murders. He was 23, and conditions like schizophrenia usually don’t manifest until late adolescence or early adulthood. But family and friends saw another culprit: post-traumatic stress disorder.

People close to him claimed that Itzcoatl had shown no signs of mental illness before he joined the Marines. His official medical examination upon enlistment revealed no personality deviation. In fact, the only notes from the physical were that he wore glasses and admitted to smoking marijuana. Like many veterans, though, he came home different. In a recent study, the Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families at the University of Southern California screened the mental health of Orange County veterans, more than one-third of whom were Hispanic. Forty-five percent suffered from PTSD, the same portion from depression. Nearly one-fifth had considered suicide. During his arrest booking, Itzcoatl told a nurse that he’d tried to suffocate himself to death in 2010.

When I asked Wyatt about the possibility that Itzcoatl had PTSD, the detective dismissed it. He said the prosecution carefully considered the suspect’s experience in Iraq and found no incident that could explain his violent turn. Itzcoatl “was not involved in transporting dead bodies, either soldiers or other people. He did not work in a morgue. He basically drove a water truck,” Wyatt argued. “He wasn’t involved in the types of combat situations that normally you would expect to see with PTSD.”

“Many of our service members, when they leave the military, they are like immigrants in their own country, because nobody really knows them.”

Not everyone shared Wyatt’s opinion, though. Carl Castro, a professor of social work and a retired Army colonel, leads the USC center that commissioned the recent study of Orange County veterans. (I also teach at USC, where I am the chair of journalism at the Annenberg School.) When I met him at his office in downtown Los Angeles, he spoke at length about a pervasive sense of alienation among veterans. “Many of our service members, when they leave the military, they are like immigrants in their own country, because nobody really knows them,” Castro explained. He cautioned that while many former service members are “very, very angry,” not all of them have PTSD. But when he reviewed the details of Itzcoatl’s case, he immediately recognized signs of the affliction.

There were the recurring, disturbing nightmares, for one, “the crying-out-in-your-sleep kind,” he said. Castro also saw symptoms in Itzcoatl’s tendency to be hypervigilant (“We call it ‘startle reflex’ in PTSD jargon”) and in the fantasy Lilia remembered her son having about a bomb being hidden in their home. “A lot of people think of nightmares as rightfully happening at night, but you can also have them while you’re sitting here,” Castro told me. “Combat affects your thinking, it affects your behavior, it lowers your tolerance to people who are aggressive towards you. It disrupts the ability to calm down.”

Itzcoatl never saw combat, I pointed out. “We have some really good data showing that truck drivers are one of the most stressed groups, because they’re really a very passive target,” Castro countered. “In some sense, the way they described it was, ‘I’m a sitting duck here!’” It would be wrong to dismiss a motor-vehicle operator’s potential distress, he added, because “everyone was at risk in Iraq and Afghanistan.” According to Itzcoatl’s military file, he was “properly notified of his requirement to be screened for PTSD/TBI,” or traumatic brain injury. He never scheduled any appointments.

Castro said that a crucial aspect of veterans’ reintegration into civilian life is the ability to seek and maintain meaningful relationships. When I asked about the effect Claudio Patiño’s death might have had on Itzcoatl, Castro said that for a man in an already fragile state of mind, the consequences of such a loss could be “catastrophic” and “the last nail in the coffin.” Particularly if it was the deepest friendship Itzcoatl ever had.

Castro understood why law enforcement might have seen an insanity defense as a cop-out. “But it’s not about getting off,” he said. “It’s trying to understand the contributions that these very traumatic, life-changing experiences can have on someone.” Similarly, Bonnie Tisdale, Itzcoatl’s supervisor at Camp Pendleton, recalled the shock she felt when she saw the young Marine’s mug shot on the news. “It wasn’t the Ocampo I remembered. He looked dead inside,” she told me. “I’m not saying what he did was right. It was absolutely wrong. But I think he just needed help. I really do.”

11.

In the end, Itzcoatl didn’t get help. He wasn’t convicted either. While awaiting trial, he spent nearly two years in jail. He was prescribed Paxil and Zoloft, which he sometimes refused to take. He once banged his head so hard against a wall that he was put on suicide watch, and he shared morbid thoughts about killing himself with other inmates. Lilia and Refugio saw their son as often as possible, but they never spoke about the murders. Itzcoatl remained discreet with his parents. Lilia worried that he was getting thin.

In 2013, the Marines permanently removed Itzcoatl from the Corps, serving him with an “other than honorable” discharge. A review board held a hearing, which Itzcoatl didn’t attend, to examine the facts of the case. It found him liable for “a serious offense, to wit: murder.” Under the terms of the Marine Corps Separation and Retirement Manual, neither a military nor a civilian conviction was required for the board’s decision, which Itzcoatl was informed of that fall.

Itzcoatl began hoarding small amounts of a powder similar to Ajax, which inmates were allowed to use to clean their cells. He stored it in small milk cartons under his bed.

Soon after, he began hoarding small amounts of a powder similar to Ajax, which inmates were allowed to use to clean their cells. He stored it in small milk cartons under his bed. On the afternoon of Wednesday, November 27, he swallowed it all with water. At around 6:15 p.m., authorities found him vomiting and shaking in his cell, with a towel inexplicably tied around his head as a blindfold. He declined assistance. Within a half-hour, he was foaming at the mouth and unresponsive. An emergency medical team was summoned.

The next day was Thanksgiving. Itzcoatl had told Lilia that he was looking forward to getting more and better food on the holiday. Early that morning she got a phone call. Itzcoatl had been transported to Western Medical Center Santa Ana, she learned, and his condition was dire. When she and Refugio arrived at the hospital, they were told that their son was brain dead. Around 7:15 that evening, they decided to pull the plug on his ventilator.

His parents initially received conflicting reports about what had killed Itzcoatl. “They told us he drank too much water,” Lilia recalled through tears. But to hydrate oneself to death is incredibly difficult. When she was told that he’d poisoned himself, Lilia didn’t believe that either. She’d planned a family visit with Itzcoatl for the day after Thanksgiving. Why would he agree to meet with her if he knew he’d be dead?

Itzcoatl’s attorney, Michael Molfetta, faulted prison authorities for negligence with regard to a mentally ill patient. “This was a guy who should have garnered the highest level of scrutiny,” Molfetta told journalists at the time, “and it wasn’t done.” But an inquiry into Itzcoatl’s death concluded otherwise. A final report published more than a year after his death cleared law enforcement of any “criminal culpability” in his suicide.

Itzcoatl was buried in Santa Ana. A handful of family members and friends attended, including Claudio Patiño’s parents. “They were our friends, and we had seen the boy grow up,” Claudio’s father told me of his decision to go. His own son had been lain to rest with full honors after a touching procession through local streets lined with people waving American flags. The only evidence of Itzcoatl’s ties to the military was on his tombstone. The Ocampos chose to engrave it with the Marines Corps motto, Semper Fidelis, above a quote that Itzcoatl had listed as his favorite in his high school yearbook: “Walk the streets I walked alone, then sit and judge me.”

12.

Judging the murders that Itzcoatl committed as unequivocal moral wrongs is easy. Determining what drove him to violent ends is much harder. His story is about many things: the immigrant experience, the desire to assimilate, military service, psychological distress, family and friendship, extraordinary violence. It begs for an organizing principle, a way to seamlessly fit its themes together in order to reveal a kernel of truth about what makes a person good and what can turn him bad. But that principle doesn’t exist—at least a satisfying one doesn’t. The story’s defining rule is the ultimate unknowability of Itzcoatl’s mind, an enigma that weighs heavily on the family he left behind.    

A few days after I met Itzcoatl’s parents last winter, Lilia traveled to Germany. It was the first long flight of her life; 17-year-old Citlaly, who declined to be interviewed for this story, went with her. Lilia told me that she was nervous to go, but also eager. She would be spending a few weeks with her first grandchild, Mixcoatl’s infant son, Ezra. “He’s always smiling. He seems very attentive,” Lilia said, cheerful for the first time in our interactions.

Mixcoatl was living in Germany with a woman named Sandra, Ezra’s mother. They were both in the Army, serving at a base in the Bavarian town of Vilseck. Mixcoatl had enlisted after Itzcoatl’s arrest. His parents told me that he’d always planned to join the armed services. Mixcoatl, who looks strikingly like his brother—same build, same buzz cut, same sharply angled face—told me he had another motivation. “I felt like everyone knew me,” he said of life in Orange County after the murders.

Itzcoatl’s dark notoriety was hard on his brother. People gossiped, and Mixcoatl was tired of the whispers about how he was related to a serial killer. The Army afforded him “a weird escape from reality,” he told me. He was in Afghanistan when he learned that his brother had killed himself. A friend sent him a message after seeing the news. “Your brother’s dead, man,” it read. Mixcoatl asked that his family wait to bury Itzcoatl until his deployment was over, a few months later, and they obliged. “My brother would have wanted me to complete my mission,” Mixcoatl told me. He also wanted to see Itzcoatl’s body one last time.

Initially, Mixcoatl hoped to be a paratrooper, but he has since changed his mind. “I like my body,” he said. “I don’t want to injure it.” Besides, he and Sandra are already expecting their second child, a daughter. Mixcoatl thinks they might move to Texas one day. It would be cheaper to live there than in Orange County, and fewer people would know about his brother.

While Lilia and Citlaly were away, I reached out to Refugio. He was still living behind the repair shop, clad in the too big jacket I’d seen him wear before. He’d recently started cleaning backyard pools for money, but he hadn’t made much. With his immediate family either dead or half a world away, he seemed glad for my company.

“I don’t regret coming to the United States in any way. It was the right decision. If we had stayed in Mexico, things would have been much worse.”

It was early January, almost five years to the day since Itzcoatl had been arrested. It would soon be 30 years since Refugio had left Mexico. So much had happened since then, and he seemed puzzled by it all: how he’d wound up penniless, chronically underemployed, with a son who confessed to murder before dying his own grisly death. I asked if he wished that he’d made a different decision when he was younger and stayed in his home country. “I don’t regret coming to the United States in any way,” Refugio said. “It was the right decision. If we had stayed in Mexico, things would have been much worse.”

Then he turned the conversation to the country he’d chosen and made wholeheartedly his own. He still believed in U.S. institutions, he said, even as he wrestled with questions about his son’s crimes and bitter end—questions for which he might never find answers. “He was a kind and honorable man,” Refugio said of Itzcoatl. “That is why I know my son didn’t do what they say he did. Or if he did do it, it wasn’t my son anymore. It was not Itzcoatl anymore.”