Angel Fire house fire subject of murder investigation

By John Miller
jmiller@taosnews.com
Posted 8/9/19

Other reports released from the investigation conclude that the cause of the house fire was arson and that a homicide investigation has been opened into the death of Herrera’s wife, Dianne Herrera …

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Angel Fire house fire subject of murder investigation

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With a gunshot wound to his chest and his home in flames behind him, George Herrera stopped breathing, then breathed again as he was carried to an ambulance idling in his yard in Angel Fire early the morning of May 5.

According to a public information request recently fulfilled by New Mexico State Police, some of the local firefighters who were carrying his gurney recognized him as a familiar face around the small mountain town east of Taos.

They noticed that Herrera was wearing a blue rubber glove on one of his hands, that his facial hair had been singed and a fresh laceration on the underside of his neck, which appeared to have been self-inflicted.

They asked him repeatedly, “George, what happened to your wife?”

Between unintelligible mumbling, one firefighter heard Herrera say, “I don’t know.” Not long after, Herrera died while en route to Angel Fire Airport, where he would have been airlifted to a trauma center.

Herrera’s wound was inflicted by Angel Fire Police officer Mark Fitch, who said the 61-year-old approached him with a knife as the home burned down near Monte Verde Lake.

“George, drop the knife,” Fitch said he shouted. When Herrera refused, Fitch fired a single shot, striking Herrera near the center of his chest.

As of press time (Aug. 7), other details were being withheld as state police are continuing to investigate the officer-involved shooting; police denied a request from Taos News for Fitch’s body camera footage, which recorded the interaction.

Other reports released from the investigation conclude that the cause of the house fire was arson and that a homicide investigation has been opened into the death of Herrera’s wife, Dianne Herrera, who was found dead inside the burned home.

Clues in a scorched home

Hours after her husband died, investigators found Dianne Herrera’s body in what had been the kitchen of the scorched two-story home, which had collapsed under the intense heat of the fire.

A pile of paper had been stacked on top of her and an “ignitable fluid” was found near her body, according to the investigation report. Burn patterns followed trails of the flammable liquid throughout the structure, including a few areas where investigators believe someone deliberately set fire to the home.

Investigators also noted that Herrera’s skull had been broken into several pieces. Near her head, they found a firearm magazine.

Her exact time and cause of death remains under investigation by the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator.

As state police continued to search the home and its surroundings on May 5, they noted an odor of a similar flammable liquid in two burned cars in the home’s driveway, which they determined had also been deliberately set on fire. They again detected the odor on the sleeves of a black jacket they found near a storage shed.

Unspent firearm rounds were scattered around the property and investigators also found a 9 millimeter handgun magazine in the pocket of another piece of clothing. The report, however, does not indicate whether the jacket was the same black jacket found near the storage shed, or if George Herrera had been wearing it before medics removed his clothing to dress his wound.

Although ammunition was found at the scene, investigators never found a firearm anywhere in or around the Herreras’ home.

Who was George Herrera?

The state police investigation report notes that the officer-involved shooting has been tied to a possible charge of aggravated assault upon a peace officer with a deadly weapon, but large sections of the report released to the Taos News – which appear to detail witness accounts of the shooting – have been redacted.

Witness interviews conducted by police do, however, provide insight into who George Herrera may have been.

One Angel Fire resident who had been four-wheeling with a firefighter the morning of the fire recognized the house as Herrera’s when he arrived to assist at the scene. He told police that he knew Herrera’s wife as a longtime employee at an International Bank branch in Angel Fire and had worked with her husband at Angel Fire Resort. Other employees who worked there, he said, believed Herrera had become “disgruntled” after he lost his job at the resort. The neighbor said there was a sense that Herrera “blamed others for taking his job.”

Christy Ronchetti, public relations director for the resort, confirmed that Herrera had worked for the company several years ago, but said his departure was an amicable decision reached between him and resort management.

Several firefighters who helped transport Herrera to the ambulance said they knew the man from around town, but few were close to him.

John Yane, a firefighter who responded from Eagle Nest on May 5, told police that Herrera may have suffered from PTSD.

State police canvassed the neighborhood around Monte Verde Lake seeking other information about the Herreras and possible witnesses.

A neighbor said he heard about the fire and the shooting at church later the morning of May 5. He told police he didn’t know George Herrera, but had been advised “by other people to stay away from George.”

He said another neighbor in the area had a camera at a nearby residence that may have captured the incident.

During the interview, he called another neighbor to also speak with police.

The neighbor told the state police investigator that Herrera was known to be “an unstable individual.” Once, she said Herrera had yelled at her for speeding past his house.

Another neighbor interviewed by police said Herrera “would talk about law enforcement watching him, such as narcotics officers.”

Otherwise, “George appeared to be normal,” he said, but he added, “that was because [I] did not know him too well.”

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