LOS ANGELES - Days after his wife filed to move their divorce forward, a Garden Grove man with a long rap sheet is suspected of having gone on what authorities describe as one of Orange County's worst binges of violence, robbing and stabbing his way south from his own apartment building, leaving four bodies and eight crime scenes in his wake.
First, police say, 33-year-old Zachary Castaneda ransacked his next-door neighbor's apartment. Then he allegedly terrorized the owner of a nearby bakery, walking off with her cash register when he couldn't get the machine open. After that, the man police describe as a known gang member doubled back to the first crime scene and apparently stabbed his neighbor and another man to death.
Over 2 1/2 hours Wednesday in attacks that became more brazen, Castaneda is suspected of terrorizing a swath of Santa Ana and Garden Grove, stabbing four people to death and nearly slicing off a man's nose, a string of crimes that strained the resources of the latter city's Police Department, authorities said. Many of the attacks, police said, were caught on surveillance video.
The rampage closely followed recent mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio; El Paso, Texas; and Gilroy, Calif., that targeted women, men and children enjoying a night out, shopping for school or noshing their way through a famous food festival.
The "needless violence" of the past 11 days prompted Garden Grove officials to lower their flags to half-staff on Thursday, said Garden Grove police Lt. Carl Whitney. "This violence has to stop."
Whitney said he has been a police officer for 30 years, and Wednesday's rampage was "the first time I've ever seen a suspect kill four people and stab others. It's pure evil."
Castaneda has an extensive criminal history in Orange County, including convictions for gun-related offenses, resisting a police officer, corporal injury, drug possession and theft. He also has several open cases in Orange County Superior Court on charges of vandalism related to gang activity, possession of a dagger and drug possession. He has pleaded not guilty to those charges, according to court records.
Castaneda's wife alleged domestic violence in a petition for a restraining order she filed against him last year. She could not be reached for comment. The couple has three children, court documents show.
Garden Grove Police Chief Tom DaRe said changes in California law - namely AB 109 - aimed at reducing the number of inmates in the state prison system handcuff law enforcement's efforts to keep criminals locked up and Californians safe.
"This person should have been in prison and not in our community," DaRe said. He is "a violent individual who should never have been considered for early release. ... Our community becomes vulnerable when these criminals are released back into society and able to commit further acts of violence."
Authorities said they do not know what led to the rampage.
Four men were killed and a 44-year-old man and a 54-year-old woman were wounded in the attacks.
Authorities released the names of two of the men who were killed: Pascual Rioja Lorenzo, 39, of Garden Grove, and Robert Parker, 58, of Orange. And family members identified one of the individuals killed as 62-year-old Helmuth Hauprich.
Hauprich and Castaneda lived in adjacent apartments at the Casa De Portola complex on Jentges Avenue in Garden Grove, where the crimes began, Whitney said.
Shortly after 4 p.m. Wednesday, Hauprich and his roommate arrived home to find their apartment had been ransacked. A passport, a Social Security card, a work authorization card (known as a green card), a sword collection and a large dining room table had been stolen, said Hauprich's son, Erwin.
Hauprich called police, but before officers could arrive, they were dispatched to a report of an armed robbery at M Bakery on Chapman Avenue.
Bakery owner Dona Beltran was outside, charging her phone in her parked car, when a silver Mercedes pulled up a little after 4 p.m. and a man, later identified as Castaneda, got out and walked into the store.
Thinking he was a customer, she said in an interview, she followed him inside. As she entered, she saw the man had walked behind the counter and was rummaging around, attempting to open the cash registers.
"What are you doing? What are you doing?" she screamed.
The man pulled up his shirt and motioned to his waistline at what Beltran assumed was a weapon. She ran into a dental office next door and yelled: "Call the police. He's trying to rob my bakery."
The dental office employees locked the door. Beltran saw the man lug away her cash registers, plop them in his car and drive away.
"It was a miracle" she wasn't hurt, she said. "This was a second chance for me."
About 5 p.m., Castaneda returned to Casa De Portola, where he got into an argument with Hauprich and his roommate and stabbed both of them multiple times, Whitney said.
When officers arrived, they found one roommate on the balcony and the other lying inside. One died at the scene, and the other was taken to a trauma center, where he later died, Whitney said.
The last time Erwin Hauprich talked with his father, the world was still in one piece. Helmuth Hauprich's apartment had yet to be ransacked.
Erwin said his father had lived in the apartment for more than 20 years, was well-liked and was "always making jokes."
Forty minutes later, Castaneda, wearing a black hoodie, walked into Cash N More on Chapman Avenue and robbed a customer, police and witnesses said.
Yesenia Torres, 34, of Santa Ana was the lone employee on duty at the time. She didn't think much of the man at first as he paced back and forth inside the store.
"I figured he was just in a hurry," Torres told the Los Angeles Times.
Torres said she had just completed processing a $200 loan for a customer, who took the cash and was walking toward the door when a man walked up and told the woman in Spanish: "This is a robbery. The insurance will pay you back."
He had one hand in his pocket and grabbed the cash with the other. Torres said she didn't see a weapon.
"This can't be happening to me," the customer said in Spanish and stood in shock.
Torres said she averted her gaze to avoid making eye contact with the thief, but once he exited the store, she said, she was able to spot his vehicle and wrote down his license plate number. She pressed the panic button and called law enforcement, she said.
Initially, she thought it had just been a simple robbery. Hours later, she heard about the killings.
"I was in shock. What if he would have taken out a weapon on our customer? You go through all the scenarios. It's scary. He seemed like such a normal person," she said. "I do feel lucky."
At 6:06 p.m., authorities say, Castaneda tried to rob the Best One Insurance Agency on Harbor Boulevard in Garden Grove. He attacked a 54-year-old employee, confronting her with what was described as a machete-style knife, Whitney said.
"This female employee was very brave; this guy was armed with knives," Whitney said. "She fought as best as she could against this armed suspect and sustained multiple stab wounds."
The woman was taken to a hospital and was expected to survive.
His next stop was a Chevron gas station, where he police say he attacked a man pumping gas, stabbing him in the back and nearly cutting off the man's nose. Castaneda returned to his vehicle and continued filling up his gas tank before driving off, Whitney said.
Chevron employee Taylor Lorenzen told NBC the suspect came inside the store "kind of angry" and threw a $50 bill on the counter. The man who was stabbed while pumping gas was "bleeding everywhere," Lorenzen said.
At a Subway sandwich shop in Santa Ana, authorities say, Castaneda fatally stabbed Lorenzo before heading to the 7-Eleven across the street. That's where he attacked Parker, a security guard, from behind, stabbing and killing him and cutting the gun off his duty belt.
Detectives from Garden Grove were combing the area, searching for Castaneda, when they spotted the Mercedes he was driving parked in front of the 7-Eleven. They confronted Castaneda outside the store and took him into custody at gunpoint, Whitney said.
DaRe said the officers "saved the lives of many other community members. If the suspect continued his rampage he could have injured or killed many other innocent people."
The violence rocked Garden Grove, a city of about 174,000 in central Orange County, which has seen at most six homicides annually in recent years.
"This is one of those things you see one time in a career," Whitney said. "We want to make sure we have a solid case and we can put this guy in prison for the rest of his life."
(Julia Sclafani of Times Community News contributed to this report.)
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