SANTA ANA, Calif. – An Iraq war veteran charged with stabbing to death four homeless men in a weeks-long rampage in Southern California was a thrill seeker who took pleasure in killing his victims, prosecutors said Wednesday.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas told reporters outside a jailhouse courtroom that 23-year-old suspect Itzcoatl Ocampo appeared lucid, calm and intelligent and showed no signs of mental illness.
"He gets a thrill out of it," Rackauckas said. "This is a serious, vicious killer who went out there intentionally going about killing people and terrorizing a whole area."
Ocampo made his first court appearance Wednesday morning wearing an orange jail jumpsuit. The slender former Marine shifted his eyes back and forth as the judge discussed plans to delay his arraignment until Feb. 17 at the request of Ocampo's attorney.
After the brief hearing, defense attorney Randall Longwith declined to comment on the allegations and said his main concern was gaining access to Ocampo, who was being held in a medical ward and denied visitors.
Longwith said he obtained a court order on Tuesday to be able to see his client briefly and spoke with him through a food slot in his jail cell while Ocampo was wearing only underwear and wrapped in a blanket designed to prevent him from hurting himself.
"We're just concerned that he hasn't really had access to an attorney or to anyone at this point," Longwith told reporters. "He seems very scared."
Ocampo was arrested Friday night when bystanders chased him down after a man was stabbed to death outside a fast-food restaurant in Anaheim, about 26 miles southeast of Los Angeles. He was caught with blood on his hands and face, authorities said.
Ocampo was charged Tuesday with four counts of murder and special allegations of multiple murders and lying in wait and use of a deadly weapon. Three victims were stabbed more than 40 times each with a single-edged blade at least 7-inches long, authorities said.
Ocampo will be given a psychological evaluation and is being held in isolation and monitored around the clock to prevent him from hurting himself or being harmed by other inmates, said Jim Amormino, a spokesman for the county sheriff's department.
The killing spree began in December and prompted police to fan out across the county known as the home to Disneyland and multimillion-dollar beachfront homes to urge the homeless to sleep in groups or in one of two wintertime shelters.
Ocampo would stalk each of his victims, then stab them repeatedly with a knife that could cut through bone. He selected his last victim, 64-year-old John Berry, after he was featured in a Los Angeles Times story about the killing spree, prosecutors said.
Berry filed a police report the day before he died, saying he feared he was being stalked, but officers didn't have a chance to follow up amid a flood of nearly 600 leads and tips.
"It is unfortunate that we didn't get to him before the suspect did," Anaheim Police Chief John Welter said.
Ocampo's family said the 23-year-old was a troubled man after he returned from Iraq in 2008.
Ocampo's arrest was the latest violent crime involving a veteran. This month, an Iraq War veteran fatally shot a ranger at Mount Rainier National Park and died later as he fled police across the mountain's snow-covered slopes.
Veterans Affairs officials say such high-profile violence can paint an inaccurate picture of returning veterans. The cases, however, raise the issue of veterans having a difficult time adjusting back into civilian life.
To help, the VA created a program to assist veterans in readjusting to their lives and avoid repeated brushes with the law. "We've seen over and over again that once they access those services, we can help them," VA spokesman Josh Taylor said.
A neighbor who is a Vietnam veteran and Ocampo's father both tried to push him to get treatment at a VA hospital, but he refused. His father, Refugio Ocampo, said, his son came back from his deployment a changed man.
He said his son expressed disillusionment and became ever darker as he struggled to find his way. After Ocampo was discharged in 2010 and returned home, his parents separated. The same month, one of his friends, a corporal, was killed during combat in Afghanistan. His brother said Ocampo visited his friend's grave twice a week.
Like the men Ocampo is accused of preying on, his father is homeless. His father lost his job and ended up living under a bridge before finding shelter in the cab of a broken-down big-rig he is helping to repair.
Days before his arrest, Ocampo visited his father, warning him of the danger of being homeless. He showed him a picture of one of the slain men, his father said. "He was very worried about me," his father said. "I told him, 'Don't worry. I'm a survivor. Nothing will happen to me.'"
As fear spread through the homeless community, police last week set up road blockades to seek help from members of the public in tracking down a suspect. Ocampo, who appeared to relish the media spotlight, passed through the checkpoints twice but did not draw attention to himself, Rackauckas said.
In addition to Berry, James Patrick McGillivray, 53, was killed near a shopping center in Placentia on Dec. 20. The body of Lloyd Middaugh, 42, was found near a riverbed trail in Anaheim on Dec. 28. The third victim, Paulus Smit, 57, was stabbed to death outside a library in Yorba Linda on Dec. 30.
Ocampo is being held without bail. If convicted, he faces a minimum sentence of life in prison without parole. Authorities have not decided whether to seek the death penalty.
Associated Press writer Kevin Freking in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.