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O.C. homeless community unsettled even with suspect in custody

Orange County authorities are confident that Itzcoatl Ocampo is the only suspect in the deaths of four people. On Sunday, friends remember John Berry, whose death Friday led to Ocampo's arrest.

January 15, 2012|By Tony Barboza and Nicole Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times
  • Danny Pierce, 56, sits in the Santa Ana Civic Center area. He said he always keeps an eye on people he hasn't seen before.
Danny Pierce, 56, sits in the Santa Ana Civic Center area. He said he always… (Gina Ferazzi, Los Angeles…)

As word spread of an arrest in the killing of four Orange County homeless men, people came to the parking lot of an Anaheim strip mall Sunday to share memories of the latest victim.

Everyone knew John Berry, who was a fixture in this section of northeast Anaheim, where apartments, shopping centers and mobile homes sit above the Santa Ana riverbed.

For years, the man with the long white beard could be found camping out on the riverbank, reading a book next to his mountain bike, or taking in the view of the dark sky.

Friends said Berry, 64, was a Vietnam veteran who would have long, spiritual talks with people from all walks of life.

He was the unofficial therapist of the neighborhood.

So it was only fitting that on Friday night, people sprang into action when he was stabbed outside a fast food restaurant in a busy shopping center.

Itzcoatl Ocampo, 23, was quickly taken into custody. Authorities suspect he is responsible for the four killings over the last month.

In an interview Sunday, Ocampo's father said that when he last saw his son, the younger man showed him a flier seeking information on the deaths of one of the homeless men. He said to his father, "Look at this, I'm worried something might happen to you."

Recounting the meeting in both Spanish and English, Refugio Ocampo, 49, said his son appeared concerned. "He was very afraid for me because I am homeless," said Ocampo, who said he sleeps in the cab of a truck in a parking lot in Fullerton.

"I told him, 'You don't need to worry about me, mijo. I am a survivor,' " Ocampo said.

The suspect's father had just returned from an unsuccessful attempt to visit his son in jail, and spoke from the modest Yorba Linda home that Itzcoatl Ocampo shared with his mother, brother and sister.

In Anaheim, Friday's events were particularly wrenching for Darin Wilson, who said that John Berry had been his friend for the last half-dozen years. Wilson said he and Berry recently talked for hours about nature, astronomy and their struggles in life.

Whenever he could, Wilson would extend a hand to Berry by inviting him over to his house for lunch. He gave Berry his phone number and offered to help him get off the streets, but Berry turned down most offers of assistance. Once he accepted a hamburger; another time, a bottle of juice. That was all.

The night before Berry was killed, Wilson ran into his friend in the Carl's Jr. parking lot.

Wilson was in his Ford Bronco. "Thank God you didn't get killed," he told Berry from behind the wheel. He said Berry looked at him with an expression of fear.

The following evening, Wilson was sitting on his front porch in the Friendly Village mobile home park when a young man in a black hooded sweat shirt staggered past, out of breath. The man was darting around nervously, he said. "He looked like he was looking for some place to hide."

When Wilson called out, the man ran through some bushes and turned the corner toward the next row of homes. Moments later, another man ran by, also breathing hard, a cellphone glued to his ear.

"It's the serial killer — that's him!" the man said to Wilson. "He stabbed a guy 20 times at Carl's Jr., a homeless guy."

Some witnesses said they saw the man try to shed clothing and discard items in the trash as he ran through the mobile home park.

Debi Harper was inside her mobile home on her computer when her yard seemed to shake. A man ran by and yelled at her, "Close your windows, lock your doors. The serial killer's out here!"

She hid in the bathroom. Later a security guard for the mobile home park came to check the shed in her yard, telling her, "We think he went over your fence." Then police came by and warned her again to stay inside.

Like others, Harper didn't know until later that the person who was killed that night was Berry.

"Everybody knew him," she said. "I made him breakfast one time."

Joyce Armstrong, 59, would often exchange hellos with Berry during walks along the riverbed, where he would sit and read next to garbage bags filled with his belongings and a clunky mountain bike he used to cart his things around.

In recent months, she would chat with him outside the Carl's Jr. and would make a point to ask about his military service.

"I said, 'You know you can get help if you want it,' " she told him, but he brushed it off, telling her, "That was a long time ago."

"It wasn't something he was blaming for his situation. He was happy being out here," Armstrong said. "I asked him how he gets by. He told me he trusted in the Lord."

Cheryl Gallant, who lives across from Yorba Regional Park, said she felt safe with Berry around. Because he was there, she and her daughter would walk the family dogs late at night without worry.

"He was the eyes of the park," she said.

She said she met Berry 12 years ago while walking on the river trail and immediately took to his kind nature. He had a calm, soothing effect on people, she said, and she would talk to him often — about work or other life issues.

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