Unsolved pieces cited in couple's slaying
Prosecutor in Najera case says there may have been more than one killer.

March 16, 2002

By GREG HARDESTY
The Orange County Register,

A young man is convicted of stabbing to death the parents of his best friend and faces life in prison without parole. The prosecutor isn't cheering.

"This is not the end," Deputy District Attorney Bruce Moore said Friday.

Indeed, despite the conviction of 21-year-old Gerald Johnson, questions remain about the murders of Jose and Elena Najera as they slept in their Garden Grove home Dec. 29, 1999. Did Johnson, son of a doctor, act alone?

Most likely not, authorities say -- although three close friends of Johnson's who partied with him the night of the killings have not been charged, including the couple's only child.

Did the Najeras die because of the $77,000 in cash they had put into a safety-deposit box during Y2K mania?

That's the theory argued by defense attorney Steven Biskar, a deputy public defender, during the three-week trial at the Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana.

Biskar told jurors that Joe Najera killed his parents to gain access to the $77,000 to pay off drug debts.

Joe Najera also was known as a big spender at the Ecstasy Theater, a Santa Ana strip club where he spent up to $1,000 a night on lap dances, Biskar said.

Najera's parents knew nothing of their son's "double life," Biskar said.

When he decided to kill them, Biskar said, the younger Najera knew that Johnson, his best friend, was taking medication for depression.

So he picked Johnson as the perfect patsy to frame, Biskar told the panel of six women and six men.

"He planned out the murder of his parents and killed them and lied about what happened," Biskar said.

Police know this:

The killer -- or killers -- entered the Najera home at about 3 a.m. from the back, through an open window leading into Joe Najera's bedroom.

Jose Najera was attacked first.

He was stabbed 24 times, mostly in the torso. Police believe his wife heard the commotion and entered his room, and was stabbed 20 times -- also in the torso.

Police say two cutting instruments may have been used. No murder weapons were found.

Prosecutors decided against seeking the death penalty against Johnson, who had no criminal record and is a graduate of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana.

On the night of the killings, Johnson, Joe Najera and two friends, Brian Smith and Vincent Torres, shot pool and watched movies at Johnson's house.

Joe Najera told police that he returned home at about 4 a.m. to find his parents dead and called 911.

Phone records place Joe Najera in Villa Park when the killings occurred.

Joe Najera also told police that he had no idea who would want to kill his parents, a hardworking couple in their 40s.

Johnson disappeared for about 40 minutes that night. He told police he went jogging, which his friends said wasn't unusual.

Two weeks after the murders, Johnson was arrested at a hospital where he was taken after a suicide attempt.

Jurors deliberated for about 10 hours before returning Friday's verdict.

Johnson was convicted of first-degree murder for killing Jose Najero and of second-degree murder for killing Elena Najera.

"(The Najeras) were good people -- really good people," said their nephew, Gabriel Gonzalez, 21. "That's all I have to say."