Five lives cut short in Rio Arriba, Taos County killings

Victims remembered by friends and family

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Where Michael Kyte lived in Tres Piedras, just off a dirt road in a forest of piñon and ponderosa pine, his work and home came together as beautifully as the landscape. Kyte's passion, as a longtime archaeologist for the Carson National Forest, was the Old Spanish Trail that runs west of the Rio Grande in Taos County. At home, he liked being self-sufficient, collecting wood and growing food for his family.

"He was one of the gentlest, nicest human beings, good and generous and as fine a field archaeologist as I've ever known," said friend Skip Miller, a retired archaeologist.

Kyte, 61, was found dead by his wife in his driveway Thursday evening. He was the fourth of five victims of a deadly shooting spree that stretched across Taos and Rio Arriba counties. Investigators believe 21-year-old Damian Herrera killed his stepfather, Max Trujillo Sr., his younger brother, Brendon Herrera, and his mother, Maria Rosita Gallegos, at the family's home in La Madera before shooting Kyte and stealing his black Chevy Silverado.

Police say Damian Herrera drove north, into Colorado, in Kyte's truck and then looped back into Northern New Mexico, traveling through Chama, Tierra Amarilla and then Abiquiú, where he stopped at Bode's General Store. He allegedly shot and killed Manuel Serrano, who was getting gas at Bode's before his shift as a security guard at the Georgia O'Keeffe house and studio.

Damian Herrera was arrested around 8:30 p.m. Thursday and is facing five counts of murder, among other charges. His mother, who survived the initial shooting and was on life support at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, died Friday evening at the hospital.

Friends and relatives in La Madera held a vigil Saturday evening (June 17) at a nearby morada to remember the victims of these stunning attacks in quiet, rural communities - most of them strangers to each other, linked only by a rampage that loved ones were struggling to explain as investigators pieced together the details.

Kyte, who specialized in stone tool artifacts, started working at the Carson National Forest in 2002. He retired from the Carson in January but was still actively researching projects with his old archaeology buddies.

"He could look at a point and tell you exactly the phase it was, from Clovis to Folsom to the 20th century. He knew his stuff," Miller said.

Beyond his skills as a sharp-eyed archaeologist, Miller said, Kyte was a great writer and "an amazing artist and illustrator" of both technical drawings and "beautiful, fun stuff of archaeology and Native peoples."

And when Kyte wasn't handling the archaeological projects on the western half of the forest, he was busy homesteading in his remote corner of Tres Piedras or taking care of his parents in Portales, a small town near the Texas border.

"He never failed to be where he was needed," Miller said. "Michael was a genuinely good human being. He just loved life. I loved the man."

The fifth victim of the rampage, 59-year-old Serrano, was a grandfather and beloved employee at the Georgia O'Keeffe house in Abiquiú, which is now owned by the O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.

Reached by phone, his brother Joe Serrano choked up and said softly that he wasn't ready to talk about his slain sibling.

In an email, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Director Robert KretCQ said Manuel Serrano had been involved with the artist's property in Abiquiú since she lived there, and had worked for the museum since 2006.

"He was a committed and trustworthy employee, and more importantly, a friend," Kret said in the statement. "We will miss him."

The hours-long shooting rampage began at the modest home in the tiny village of La Madera, about 45 miles west of Taos, where Herrera's family lived. It may have been sparked by a dispute over a truck. His stepfather, 55-year-old Trujillo, is believed to be his first victim.

Donna Pflaum, Trujillo's aunt, described Trujillo as a family man who loved his own son and the five children of Gallegos, his wife of more a decade, who was best know to family as "Brenda."

"He was a father to those kids," Pflaum said. "He adored all those kids. He raised them just like he did his own son."

Pflaum and Trujillo were close in age, she said, and grew up playing and fighting like siblings in Vallecitos before Trujillo's parents moved to California. She thinks of herself more as his sister than his aunt.

Trujillo would always come back to New Mexico in the summertime, she said, and eventually moved back to the state. He was an iron worker and did welding work for projects like skyscrapers, stadiums and wind tunnels.

According to his aunt, Trujillo's passions were hunting and fishing. Facebook photos show him in the outdoors with family members. Pflaum said relatives loved to go hunting and fishing with him in the northern part of the state.

Family and the outdoors may have been what Trujillo loved best, Pflaum said, and Trujillo was the kind of person whom family loved best.

"He was everybody's favorite," she said. "He just had the biggest heart in the world."

On Friday, Trujillo's son, Max Trujillo, wrote on his Facebook page: "I never told you this enough. I love you dad and thank you for everything you did not only for me but [our] whole family. Rest in peace my father."

Trujillo and Gallegos' home in La Madera is only 10 miles or so down the road from where Trujillo grew up in Vallecitos. On the day after the shooting, few people were at the scattered houses, and the village seemed nearly deserted.

Community members planned to hold a vigil Saturday evening (June 17) at a morada near La Madera to remember the victims.

"He sure was a good man," a neighbor, Noel Chacón, said of Trujillo. "He was helpful to others. He was like a real old-fashioned, traditional man."

Few details about Brenda Gallegos and her sons, Brendon and Damian, were immediately available in the wake of the shootings.

According to Pflaum, Gallegos was quiet and didn't say too much unless Pflaum happened to catch her in the mood to chat. On those days, "we'd just chatter on the phone for a long time," Pflaum said.

She remembered Brendon Herrera, 20, as being quiet as well. According to a cousin, he attended Mesa Vista Middle and High School. He was a reporter on the high school's newspaper, The Spectacle, in 2012.

Olibama Margaret Maestas,, who said she was an on-again-off-again romantic partner of Damian Herrera last year, said the brothers had a close relationship.

"They were inseparable," Maestas said. "He loved his brother. I'm trying to figure out why he would do this to his family - it's not like him."

John Miller nof The Taos News contributed to this report.

Sami Edge is a reporter with The Santa Fe New Mexican. Cody Hooks is a reporter with The Taos News

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