Police:2 killers of O.C. couple

CRIME: A man accused of slaying his best friend's parents didn't act alone, an affidavit alleges.

January 19, 2000
Byline: TONY SAAVEDRA, BILL RAMS
The Orange County Register, Page A1

Two weapons were used to slash Jose and Elena Najera to death, and blood smears on a wall of the couple's Garden Grove home were made by two types of gloves - evidence that there was more than one killer, police documents show.

Gerald T. Johnson, the best friend of the couple's only son, Jose "Joe" Najera, was charged last week with the double homicide.

A search-warrant affidavit released Tuesday showed that detectives also are focusing their investigation on Joe Najera and two friends, who were with Johnson the night of the killings.

Large blotches of dried blood were discovered by detectives in a silver 1986 Toyota Corolla belonging to one of the friends, Brian Smith, 18, of Huntington Beach, the affidavit said. The Toyota matches the description of a car seen by a neighbor at the Najeras' home around the time of the Dec. 28 slayings.

The car was seized during a Jan. 11 search of Smith's home. The blood is being compared with the victims', authorities said.

Smith's family declined to comment Tuesday.

Also disclosed in the affidavit: A black ski mask found near the bodies yielded the DNA evidence that landed Johnson, 19, of Villa Park, in jail. Strands of blond hair found in the knit mask and saliva from the mask's mouth opening matched DNA samples taken from Johnson.

"He's going to have a lot of explaining to do," Garden Grove police Sgt. Mike Handfield said of the mounting evidence against Johnson.

The hair and mask - found behind the headboard of a bed - appeared to have been yanked from the intruder's head. The mask was stained with the slain man's blood, the affidavit said.

An autopsy showed that Jose Najera had been slashed 24 times and his wife 21 times, the affidavit said.

Bloodstains indicate that the intruders entered the house through the same bedroom window used by Joe Najera to sneak out about midnight. He went to party with Johnson, Smith and Vincent Torres, 18, of Huntington Beach.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Joe Najera declined to comment about the case but said he has had a difficult time since his parents' deaths and his best friend's arrest.

"I'm just trying to hang in there and not think about it," Najera said. "The more I think about it, the worse it gets."

Najera has told police that he, Smith and Torres were at Johnson's home, playing video games and watching television, on the night of the killings. Najera said he discovered the bodies when he returned home about 4 a.m. The teen-agers, all 1999 graduates of Mater Dei High School, contradicted one another, and even themselves, in interviews given to police and to The Orange County Register.

The affidavit said Johnson had light scratches on his face and neck when he first talked to police. He told investigators that he cut himself while shaving. He initially said he went to bed about 2:30 a.m., woke up between 4:30 and 5 a.m., got himself some chocolate cake and soda, and went back to sleep. In a second interview, Johnson told police that he stayed up all night and went for a drive with Torres in Smith's Toyota.

Torres said Tuesday that he didn't see any blood in Smith's car when he and Johnson went riding. He declined further comment.

"I don't want to go into it anymore," he said.

Torres told the Register in an earlier interview that he and Joe Najera agreed not to tell police that Johnson disappeared for up to 40 minutes during the evening. They said he told them he went out jogging, dressed in black sweats.

Court documents showed that in the days after the killings, Johnson withdrew a $20,000 cashier's check from his Villa Park bank account and made it payable to his girlfriend. About the same time, Johnson left a suicide note on a computer at his home and disappeared, staying in $200-a-night hotel rooms, friends said. He was arrested at a Costa Mesa psychiatric hospital.

During the search of Johnson's home, police seized several knives, a machete with a duct-taped handle and a metal hatchet missing part of its handgrip. They also seized from the homes of Smith and Torres ski gloves and other pieces of cutlery.

EVIDENCE AND STATEMENTS IN NAJERA SLAYING CASE

Some of the evidence and discrepancies in the Najera case, according to interviews with witnesses, search-warrant affidavits and police:

Hair strands and saliva in a ski mask found behind a bed in the room where Jose and Elena Najera were slashed to death matches suspect Gerald Johnson's DNA.

Blood is found in Brian Smith's car. Police believe Smith's Toyota is the car that neighbor Grady Owen saw pull up to the Najera home about 3 a.m. Dec. 28.

Examiners conclude two different types of gloves were worn and two different types of cutting instruments were used, indicating that there were two or more killers.

Gerald Johnson first told investigators he went to bed from 2:30 a.m. to about 4:30 a.m., awakening only long enough to get and eat some chocolate cake. He later tells police he stayed up all night and didn't leave the house. His friend, Vincent Torres, told The Orange County Register last week that Johnson had gone jogging in the middle of the night and returned with mud on his face. Torres admitted to deciding with the slain couple's son, Jose "Joe" Najera, to withhold that information from police for days.