Teen is mum on parents' deaths

COURTS: Jose Najera refuses to testify at a hearing of a friend charged in the killings, jeopardizing the prosecution's case.

October 11, 2000
Byline: JOHN McDONALD
The Orange County Register, Page B1

The teen-age son of a murdered Garden Grove couple invoked his constitutional right against self-incrimination Tuesday and refused to answer questions at the preliminary hearing of a friend charged with the killings.

Jose Najera, 19, testified Thursday for the prosecution against his friend Gerald Johnson, also 19, who is charged with the special-circumstance murders of Jose and Elena Najera.

The couple was viciously stabbed to death in the predawn hours of Dec. 28 by an intruder who crawled into their home through their son's unlocked window.

Judge Andrew Banks ruled that none of Najera's testimony can be considered after his refusal to submit to cross-examination. The judge also said he has doubts there is sufficient evidence to hold Johnson for trial.

The son appeared in court in Westminster on Tuesday and, after consulting with a court- appointed lawyer, he declined to answer questions by Deputy Public Defender Stephen Biskar.

Najera testified Thursday that shortly before he left a party at Johnson's house, Johnson returned after being absent for a time. Najera said that when he got home, he found his parents dead.

Two other friends from the party, Vincent Torres and Brian Smith, also refused to testify at the hearing, invoking rights against self-incrimination.

Much of the testimony at the hearing Tuesday centered on defense witnesses who cast suspicion on young Najera. Grady Owen, 18, who lives next door to the house where the Najeras were murdered, said he noticed a gray car pulling into the Najera driveway at about the time of the murders. He said he called Jose Najera on his cell phone and asked whose car was pulling in.

Najera was not home but said on the phone that it was a car his father had borrowed.

Owen said that after learning of the murders and seeing the gray car was not at the house, he questioned Najera about having said his dad had driven it. If the older Najera had driven it to the house, it should have still been there, Owen reasoned.

"You felt Jose might have something to do with the murders because he lied" about the car, Biskar asked.

"Yes," Owen said. He added that immediately after the murders Jose Najera seemed cool and wished him well on his planned trip to Las Vegas.

Garden Grove police officer Allan Harry said that when he questioned Jose Najera after the murders, the teen-ager revealed that he had dropped out of four of his five courses at Orange Coast Community College and feared how his parents would react.

He thought he would be sent to do labor on a farm in Mexico that is operated by relatives if his parents found out he dropped the classes, Harry testified. Harry added that during the questioning, the teen asked if he was a suspect in the killings.

"I think everybody is a suspect. I don't know who did it yet," Harry said he answered.

Other evidence indicated that Jose Najera has spent $77,000 of his parents' money and may have recently received another $39,000 from the sale of the house.

The four friends from Mater Dei High School -- Najera, Johnson, Torres and Smith -- told detectives they spent the night of Dec. 27 drinking alcohol, playing video games and watching movies at Johnson's Villa Park home until early the next morning.

Johnson attempted suicide a few days after the murders and was admitted to a local hospital.

The strongest evidence offered at the hearing was testimony that a ski mask with hair and saliva consistent with Johnson's DNA was found in the bedroom, where the two victims were each stabbed more than 20 times by a killer or killers using at least two different knives.

"There is a trail of blood leading to the defendant's shower," Deputy District Attorney Bruce Moore argued Tuesday in asking that Johnson be held over for trial.

Banks responded that the trail included blood in a car owned by Smith and that blood in Johnson's shower that has yet to be tested and could have come from anybody.

He said he will rule today on whether to hold Johnson for trial.