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To many in the Register’s comments sections, the most important thing to know about 23-year-old Itzcoatl Ocampo of the class of 2006 at Esperanza High School — who (the presumption of innocence temporarily placed aside) over the course of 24 days apparently murdered 53-year-old James McGillivray, 42-year old Lloyd Middaugh, 57-year-old Paulus Cornelius Smit, and then (on the night of Friday the 13th) 64-year-0ld John Berry, all homeless men, all asleep, the last of which occasioned his arrest after being pulled off of a block wall by a security guard after witnesses chased him down — appears to be the derivation of his last name.
“Send him back to Mexico,” wrote one commenter. ”Check his immigration status,” wrote several. Others bayed for capital punishment, to be administered summarily without trial, if possible, “a Yorba Linda High Noon hanging” for a beast.
I wonder whether the reaction would be quite the same if his first name was Francisco or Hernando. You don’t (or at least many of us don’t) come across the name “Itzcoatl” every day — although anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of Mexican history could probably guess that it traces back to the Aztecs. I looked it up: Itzcoatl was a great military leader — the fourth emperor of the Aztecs, a key founder of their Empire. Like the Mexican politician Cuahtemoc Cardenas, son of the celebrated populist politician Lazaro Cardenas, Itzcoatl Ocampo’s given name suggests parents with ample pride in their pre-Columbian history. For most Americans, an Aztec name may sound atavistic; but is it any more so than the names of the celebrated butchers Francisco Pizarro or Hernando (Hernán) Cortés — no offense intended to any Franciscos or Hernandos reading this — whose Spanish names now register merely as “normal” Mexican ones? (The uncle in whose house Itzcoatl had been staying is named Raul.)
For some, this is apparently just the story of a mad Mexican with a knife. That seems to miss the mark widely.
Consider: Itzcoatl Ocampo was also a Marine. He served in Iraq.
Now, by far most ex-Marines and other Iraq War veterans, just like by far most Mexicans (whether named for Aztec ancestors or not), do not commit serial murders; they are instead upstanding members of society. Such demographic statuses might provide the beginning of an explanation, but the road from there to any satisfying story is long and narrow, not to be traversed so easily. What more do we need to know? For all but the most pigheaded and bigoted, there seems no plausible pathway from his ethnic identity itself to his committing violent stealthy attacks against the homeless. Most serials killers in the U.S. are non-Hispanic Caucasians.
Is there a plausible pathway to an explanation based on his military service? A string of comments posted this morning in dear departed Geoff Willis’s diary wondering if the killings were part of a gang initiation — the best that can be said about this is that perhaps it was a clever ruse to lull the killer into complacency — see to think so. And maybe it’s true — but rather than succumb to the “crazed military veteran” that for decades plagued those who served in Vietnam, we would want to know more about this particular case.
For example, we might want to know the likes of this:
[A] relative and a friend of the suspect described a young man who appeared to be deeply troubled after his return from service in Iraq in the summer of 2010.
“When he came back from Iraq, he was sick,” said his uncle, Ifrain Gonzalez.
For the last year, he had been telling relatives that he was seeing and hearing things, Gonzalez said.
The last time Gonzalez saw his nephew was at a Christmas Eve party. Ocampo, he said, had told a cousin, “I did something terrible, but don’t worry.”
It was four days after the killings had begun.
An LA Times profile adds more detail. He was born in Mexico, and moved to California at age 1.
According to his uncle and his friend, Ocampo had one goal: getting away from home. His parents, who both worked in factories, were splitting up, and their house in Yorba Linda was being foreclosed on.
He then joined the Marine Corps.
When he returned to the U.S., Ocampo moved into a rented bedroom that he shared with his mother and a younger sister and brother in Yorba Linda. His main activity was playing video games, Gonzalez said. Things got worse when he learned a good friend had been killed in Afghanistan.
Was he crazy before he joined the military? (Is he crazy now? Since when?) He is described as having been “reserved and a little goofy” in high school, but is said to have come home changed. According to an uncle, Ocampo made and broke several appointments for psychiatric evaluation. Several commenters note what is printed as his quote in the 2006 Esperanza High School yearbook:
“Walk the streets I walked alone. Then sit and judge me.”
Is the dramatic quote indicative of some mental problem, as many who comment on it seem to think, or is it just a high school kid being emo? Well — Ocampo was accepted into the Marine Corps, so one would hope that they evaluated him reasonably well before arming him. On the other hand, weren’t recruiting standards being lowered at some point when the Iraq War was at its height? Make a misbegotten war of choice enough of a priority and sometimes maybe you don’t delve too deeply into the quality of your cannon fodder.
We know something else of note as well: six months ago, Ocampo, his mother, and a younger brother and sister moved into a room in the house of his uncle Raul, described by his landlord as “an ideal tenant”. Sounds like economic straits to me. (I would not dream of contacting them to inquire. They have enough trouble right now.)
Aztec. Marine. Depressed. Dispossessed. We have clues into what may have led Itzcoatl Ocampo onto a journey of murder, but no conclusions. We have to avoid the facile ones. Do we generalize the danger he has posed to … Mexicans? No, that’s dumb. How about to Marines or other military personnel? The problem is that few ever reach this depth. How about to the depressed and delusional untreated mentally ill? There’s a better case there. To people who have lost so much that they have to move into tight lodging with their family? That could be an aggravating factor.
How about to some combination of the latter three, combined with some bad luck in the roll of the dice? That starts to sound more plausible. Not every patch of dry brush starts a forest fire, but it’s smart not to be unconcerned about generating more and more dry brush.
All these, except the racial heritage that some people so quickly invoke, seem to have played a possible role. Each is a roll of the dice, a whack of the ax at the rope constraining the beasts within. Train someone to kill and put him in battle. Fail to treat an apparently growing mental illness. (“I did something terrible,” he told his cousin. He knew, at some level, what he had done.) Add the stress of economic privation. Mix well.
Not everyone snaps, given such a mix — but some do. And who pays the price? In this case, it’s not those who sent him (under false pretenses) to war, who provided too little help for his mental hygiene upon his return, who crashed the economy. It’s powerless homeless men, who on the final occasion turned out to include someone widely beloved.
What of the above factors can we control? Controlling mental illness and economic privation is desirable, but hard. But one possible contributing factor does stand out: if PTSD was a factor, that was the one that was preventable. (And that’s what I take to be the point of our commenters.) We did not have to send this young man to war. We didn’t have to send anyone to this war. We did not have to leave some random targets among the non-cosseted many to bear the brunt of a soldier’s misdirected fury.
One reason that we are supposed to hesitate to send people to war, to save it for the most extreme provocations — a lesson we learned in Vietnam and then last decade again ignored — is that when you send people to war, a fair amount of the time bad things like this tend to happen. Not in any particular case, not enough for any particularized suspicion without much more. Going to war, spending a year or more in the killing biz, is not a death sentence or a sure mark of future inclination towards mayhem. It’s an ingredient, that’s all. It just makes the possibility of disaster greater; it guarantees nothing.
And yet here we are: four stabbings by a depressed and dispossessed Iraq War Veteran — a firstborn son who was named by proud parents in honor of an Aztec warrior.
This is a rude question, one to which we may never know the answer, but it’s one that is rightly being asked:
Should the murders of four homeless men in 24 days be added to the tab for the Iraq War?
Isn’t that the possible contributing factor that we could have prevented?
I don’t want to forget the victims, so I’ll leave the penultimate word to an OC Register commenter named Audie Voorhies. It’s not about Ocampo at all, but about his gentle and religious white-bearded final victim, who apparently reminded people of Santa Claus:
“John was a very nice man. He liked Arizona sun tea and canned chili from CVS. He would always go to CVS. People would buy him food without him having to ask for it and he would always say, “God Bless You” and was very humble and genuinely surprised that people came through for him. This is not the first time he was beat up by thugs. Some young punks at Yorba Reginal Park beat him up last year. When I saw John last year, I asked him about it. He shrugged it off and said that, “It wasn’t the first time; he was beat up alot.” John wouldn’t have hurt a fly. I hope that he receives a large funeral. He was a very modest man. I am just heartsick over this sad situation.”
The homeless have been scared — but far more die of neglect and exposure than of serial murder. We are learning about the homeless in these times, sometimes through their murders, less frequently through their death by more natural causes. We will no doubt, before long, be learning even more, if — after the coverage of the murder is gone — we decide to pay attention.