Accused killer, victims' son were inseparable

January 13, 2000
Byline: BILL RAMS, TONY SAAVEDRA, ANH DO
The Orange County Register, page A1

They were unlikely friends, the slim doctor's son from Villa Park and the husky kid from Garden Grove whose father installed portable classrooms.

They were inseparable, locked in an ill-fated relationship that began at Mater Dei High School. Gerald Johnson was lanky, quiet and shy, working behind the scenes at the campus TV station. Jose "Joe" Najera Jr., nicknamed "Porky," was gregarious and embraced the spotlight, playing a disciple last year in the school's production of "Godspell."

Both 1999 graduates were remembered by school administrators as "good kids. " Their friendship is center stage in a tale of murder and mystery that has shaken the quiet of two Orange County neighborhoods.

Johnson, 19, is accused of slashing Najera's parents to death at their Garden Grove home in the predawn darkness of Dec. 28 after climbing through Najera's open bedroom window. Both teen-agers had spent the early morning with at least two other friends shooting pool and drinking at the $400,000 home of Johnson's parents in Villa Park.

Prosecutors on Wednesday charged Johnson with two counts of murder with special circumstances of burglary that could qualify him for the death penalty if he's convicted. He is expected to be arraigned today.

Detectives said Najera and the other two boys with him that night remain potential suspects. Authorities are still trying to untangle what led to the deaths of Jose and Elena Najera, who friends say doted on their only son.

"It's hard to say exactly what happened," said Garden Grove police Capt. Dave Abrecht. "Somehow, we'll get to the bottom of it."

Johnson's arrest stunned neighbors on the Villa Park cul-de-sac where he grew up, riding his bicycle and playing baseball in the street. It's a neighborhood of multistory homes owned by doctors, lawyers, a school superintendent and other white-collar professionals in a bedroom community part Mayberry, part Beverly Hills.

"When you hear of this happening next door, it kind of jars your senses. It's a wake-up call to reality," said neighbor Juliana Ditty.

Gerald Johnson's father, Ronald, was a Boy Scout troop leader, still remembered by neighborhood teens for handing out trophies at Scouting award ceremonies. Gerald's mother, Bonnie, is a doctor with Kaiser Permanente in Downey. Friends said Gerald Johnson, the youngest of three children, always made the honor holl.

At Mater Dei, Johnson worked for the school's television production studio, MDTV, returning this year to work part time.

From behind the camera, he recorded athletic events, student musicals and plays, as well as a student cable news show.

His friend, Joe Najera, was the kind of kid who bloomed in front of the camera. Friends called him a boisterous backslapper with a deep, soaring voice that belted out the national anthem at Mater Dei sporting events.

Among the school's five choirs, he shone as a chamber singer, winning an award at his senior year's musical production. Some of the kids he sang with later performed at his parents' funeral.

"He was one of the nicer people I knew in school," said sophomore Jon Pugh of Tustin Ranch, who took a beginning Latin class with Najera last year. "If you were really mad at someone, he would try to help you figure out why. He was always doing things like that. He's such a good person."

Both Johnson and Najera appeared to be close to their parents, who placed ads congratulating the boys in their 1999 yearbook. On one page, Joe Najera hugs his mother, beaming at a mother-son breakfast. On another, Johnson's parents and siblings write a poignant graduation message: "You made it. We are proud of you and your achievements. Look to the future and follow your dream."

His future now is uncertain.

"I really don't know what's going on, and I don't want to pass off any misinformation," said Bonnie Johnson, the boy's mother.

"He's always been a good boy."

But his life, and that of Najera, would change three days after Christmas, when Joe Najera sneaked out of his bedroom window at midnight to party with Johnson. It was through that same window that police say the killer later entered.

Jose Najera Sr. was too tired to get undressed. He fell asleep that night in his blue shirt, gray pants and socks. He never awoke.

Police believe he was the first to die, slashed along the left side of his face, his ear and his left arm. Detectives theorize that Elena Najera, sleeping in another room, heard the noise and rushed in. She was stabbed repeatedly in the chest and died wearing pink striped pajamas.

The killer tucked a black ski mask behind the bed in the room where the murders occurred, according to a search warrant affidavit.

Detectives took a cleaver and a nine-piece knife set from the home to examine as possible murder weapons.

Elena Najera's purse was found in a closet with $4,905 inside.

Her son, Joe Najera, told police he stumbled upon the bodies about 4 a.m. after climbing back through the now-bloodied window sill. He called police at 4:36 a.m. A neighbor told investigators that he saw an unfamiliar car, a gray Nissan, parked in the Najeras' driveway about the time that police believe the killings occurred.

The neighbor, Grady Owen, 17, said Wednesday that he called Joe Najera's cell phone about 3 a.m. to see if everything was all right. Owen said Najera explained that the car belonged to a friend of his father's who was there to pick him up for work.

When Owen went outside after police arrived, the gray car was gone.

Nearly two weeks later, Owen said, Najera changed his story. He said the gray Nissan was there because his own Toyota had broken down.

Abrecht said Owen's account, and the discrepancies in Najera's story, is credible evidence in the case. Police say they have searched a car similar to the one Owen described, which Johnson may have driven that night.

Owen added that Najera told him another time that Johnson had chased his calico cat Oscar with a knife.

"I've been saying from the day it happened that I thought (Johnson) did it," Owen said. "But why would anyone just up and whack their best friend's parents?"

A couple days after the killings, Johnson disappeared from his family home.

When he returned, sheriff's deputies were called to the house on a report of a suicide attempt. Johnson was later admitted to a psychiatric hospital in Costa Mesa, where he was arrested Tuesday. Johnson invoked his right to silence and asked for an attorney.

Detectives also swarmed on his house and the Huntington Beach homes of the other two teens who were with Najera and Johnson that night, seizing knifes, two cars and clothes that could be examined for blood. Police said more arrests could be pending.

Owen said he and neighbor Michael Nguyen, 17, last spoke with Najera on Saturday, when several of Najera's family members came to the house to clean it up.

"He said he thought Gerald did it," Owen said.

He "seemed emotionless," added Nguyen.

Najera told them that Johnson was admitted to the hospital after his mother found a suicide note, Owen said. Obviously, Najera told them, if he wanted to kill himself, he must be the killer.

Johnson's ex-girlfriend, Jacqueline Gonzalez, 18, said in an earlier interview that he had emotional problems and had been taking Prozac. Gonzalez is Najera's cousin.

On Wednesday, Joe Najera Jr. answered the door at his uncle's home, wearing a baggy sweatshirt and fuzzy slippers adorned with teddy bear faces.

"I really have no comment at this time," he said. "Sorry, man. "