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Jailed suspect in O.C. slayings died from eating Ajax, attorney says

The death of Itzcoatl Ocampo, who was accused of killing six people, raises questions about how closely inmates are monitored.

November 29, 2013|By Adolfo Flores and Hailey Branson-Potts
  • Itzcoatl "Izzy" Ocampo, shown at his arraignment last year, swallowed Ajax, a household cleanser, before he died in jail, his attorney says. Ocampo had been awaiting his pre-trial hearing in the killings of six people in Orange County.
Itzcoatl "Izzy" Ocampo, shown at his arraignment last year,… (Mark Boster, Los Angeles…)

An attorney for an accused Orange County serial killer who died after deputies discovered he was ill in his cell said his client died after swallowing Ajax, a household cleanser.

Michael Molfetta said investigators believe his client, Itzcoatl "Izzy" Ocampo, accumulated enough Ajax powder for a lethal dose that he then ingested. Deputies found Ocampo in his single-man cell at Central Jail in Santa Ana about 6:35 p.m. Wednesday, shaking and vomiting.

Ocampo, 25, was taken to Western Medical Center in Santa Ana, where he died in the intensive care unit about 1:40 p.m. Thursday.

The incident raises concerns about how the Sheriff's Department monitors its inmates, especially someone like Ocampo who has attracted so much media attention, Molfetta said.

"I'm completely baffled as to how this can happen to a guy who is, if not the most high-profile inmate in jail, one of them," Molfetta said. "His family is grieving. They want to know how this happened."

Ocampo, a former Marine, was accused of killing six people, including four homeless men, a woman and her son. He was scheduled to appear in court for a pre-trial hearing in January. He was arrested in January 2012 after a series of slayings in north Orange County and had set a personal goal of 16 killings, authorities said.

Prosecutors allege that the killings carried out by Ocampo started on Oct. 25, 2011, with the stabbing death of a high school friend's brother, Juan Herrera, 34, and their mother, Raquel Estrada, 53, in their Yorba Linda home.

The killings continued on the street with the slayings of four homeless men. Ocampo told police he targeted homeless people because they were "available and vulnerable" and he believed he was performing a public service because their presence was a "blight" on the community, authorities said.

Between December 2011 and January 2012, Ocampo was accused of fatally stabbing James Patrick McGillivray, 53; Lloyd Middaugh, 42; Paulus "Dutch" Smit, 57; and John Berry, 64, in separate incidents. All of the men were homeless.

Orange County prosecutors had been seeking the death penalty against Ocampo.

"The temptation by people is to say 'Who cares?'" Molfetta said. "That is a slippery slope right there because he is presumed innocent."

Ocampo's death is being investigated by the Orange County district attorney's office, which is routine for in-custody deaths, the Sheriff's Department said. An autopsy is scheduled for early next week but toxicology results will not be available for several weeks, officials said.

"There's no excuse, this should not have happened," Molfetta said, noting that the district attorney's office had notified Ocampo's family that his death was likely the result of his ingesting Ajax. "How hard is it to keep poison away from him? The answer is it isn't at all if you cared."

Inmates are provided a powdered cleaning product at their request to clean their cell, said Lt. Jeff Hallock of the Orange County Sheriff's Department. But he said he could not comment on how Ocampo died because the investigation into his death hasn't been completed and an autopsy is pending.

"It would be premature at this point to say Mr. Ocampo died as a result of ingesting Ajax, or any type of cleaning product," Hallock said. "We take the loss of any human life, regardless of the charges, very seriously."

Hallock said deputies are required to conduct security checks at least once an hour and log them. He declined to say whether Ocampo was on suicide watch, citing patient confidentiality. But if an inmate were on suicide watch, that individual would be held in a medical housing unit, which Ocampo was not, he said.

Ocampo's death infuriated a friend of one of his alleged victims, who called him a "piece of slime."

"All this guy did was take away from people," said Ron Cady, a friend of Smit, who was stabbed more than 60 times in December 2011 outside the Yorba Linda Library.

Cady, a truck driver, said Smit's eldest daughter introduced him to her father several years ago when she brought him to Cady's Garden Grove home for Thanksgiving dinner.

The two men had a lot in common, and Cady said Smit gave him a new perspective on homelessness. Before Ocampo's arrest, Cady reached out to homeless people in his neighborhood, telling them to be careful because a serial killer was targeting them.

Cady, 52, wanted Ocampo to go to trial and said he was angry that the victims' families would not get to see him brought to justice.

"Although I am a man of faith and believe there is ultimate justice, just the idea that he would have to go through and listen to every little detail of everything that was done and all the people that he affected, I think that is a form of punishment in itself," Cady said, "and now he doesn't have to go through that."

adolfo.flores@latimes.com

hailey.branson@latimes.com

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