It was an officer from Umatilla who found the suspect in a Hermiston stabbing.
Aaron Zuwala was arrested early Monday, June 4, after several out-of-town officers, members of the major crime team helping Hermiston police on a hectic night, knocked on doors looking for someone who just stabbed two men near a storage unit on Kelli Boulevard.
Between 9 p.m. June 3 and 7 a.m. June 4, three incidents took place in Hermiston — the stabbing and two shootings — stretching Hermiston Police Department resources thin. During the initial response, the department relied on assistance from the major crime team, officers from neighboring agencies that help out when multiple incidents pile up.
Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston said it’s rare for that many emergencies to converge.
“It’s very atypical,” he said. “The last thing I can think of is when we had the officer-involved shooting in 2012, and OSP was dealing with the bus crash on Cabbage Hill that killed 17 people.”
Lt. Randy Studebaker said when any major incident occurs, he or one of the police captains will immediately show up and appoint a case manager and a lead detective. They, along with other officers, will close off the scene to the public and begin collecting evidence. Officers also apply for a search warrant and notify the forensics lab.
The night of the stabbing, Studebaker, detective Freddy Sotelo, and Capt. Travis Eynon responded to the home on the south side of town around 10 p.m. While Studebaker and Sotelo worked through the night and into the next afternoon, Eynon was called away a few hours after the stabbing to manage officers who were responding to the next incident, a shooting around 1 a.m. on West Hartley Avenue. He was joined by police detectives Victor Gutierrez and Robert Guerrero, who worked until about 6 p.m. the next day. At that scene, they found 26 year-old Erik Navarrete Campos, who had a gunshot wound to the head. He died later in the week from that wound, and police are investigating his death as a homicide.
Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston said two patrol officers are on duty at all times. As the city continues to grow, that number may have to increase to three. And the long-term absences of three officers for health and family reasons are straining the department.
All the law enforcement agencies in Umatilla and Morrow counties have signed an agreement to provide mutual aid, which includes helping another department secure a scene, collect evidence, interview witnesses and suspects, write search warrants and attend autopsies. That night, Edmiston said the department received help from Boardman, Pendleton, Umatilla, Stanfield and Milton-Freewater police departments, as well as Umatilla and Morrow County sheriff’s offices, Oregon State Police and the Blue Mountain Enforcement Narcotics Team. Edmiston estimated those assisting from outside agencies provided an average of 24 to 36 hours of assistance to HPD for the two incidents. Edmiston said his department was at minimum staffing that evening, and his own detectives worked longer to keep up with the workload.
He noted in these calls for mutual aid an officer may work overtime for another city. But each agency is responsible for paying their own employees overtime.
“That is why it is a give-and-take, and why we want to ensure we have a case manager,” Edmiston said in an email to the EO. “In addition to the lead detective to make sure there are still tasks to be done. If not, the case manager will start sending people home.”
“In those first 48 hours,” Studebaker said, “it’s not so much investigating leads as trying to identify what those leads are.”
Studebaker said after the stabbing they collected what information they could from the victims, but were only able to get the first name of the suspect. So they started looking into people associated with the victim and began going through the timeline of events.
“When we’re looking into this is when we get the shooting call,” Studebaker said.
Some Umatilla police officers who had been dispatched for mutual aid began knocking on doors.
“We kind of got some luck, the (suspect) opened the door and said, ‘Hey, I’ve been waiting on you guys,’” Studebaker said.
Investigators interviewed Zuwala, who provided a statement that corroborated some of the details police knew. Officers recovered the weapon, which had been thrown into a field.
Police arrested and booked Zuwala in the Umatilla County Jail, Pendleton, and the next day he was arraigned on two counts of unlawful use of a weapon, two counts of first-degree assault and two counts of attempted murder. He awaits a pre-trial hearing Aug. 13.
Police have not released any more details about Navarrete’s murder and are investigating it.
Around 7 a.m. that day, Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office also responded to a shooting death at Windy Lane. The sheriff’s office confirmed it continues to investigate the death and will not release any information.
For cases where the investigation is longer, such as the Navarrete case, Studebaker said the process depends largely on the availability of evidence.
“I think it’s important to remember the difference in the role of the police and the role of the prosecution,” Studebaker said. “When we get that case, we don’t know what’s important, what’s relevant, or what’s going to be pivotal later.”
Much of that is determined after they receive physical evidence back from the crime lab, which can take anywhere from a few days to a few months.
“We’re taking on a huge chunk from the beginning, and then the prosecutor is able to whittle down what they need to work with,” he said.
After the initial investigation, detectives will spend as much time as necessary on a case — but most local agencies don’t have the staff to have a detective devote all their time to one case.
“I can’t necessarily prioritize my caseload based off what’s most important,” Studebaker said. “I may have to prioritize it based on where I’m going to lose evidence.”
Officers also immediately began communicating with the Umatilla County District Attorney’s Office.
“On major crimes, the district attorney is one of the first people we notify,” Studebaker said. Often, he said, the district attorney will respond to a crime scene or to briefings with detectives.
“They provide legal guidance, input from cradle to grave on a case.”
A case will officially be turned over to the district attorney when it is ready for prosecution. Studebaker said that may be when police have exhausted all leads, or when they need to get a case through grand jury, or get an arrest warrant for someone who’s fled the state. The stabbing was turned over to the district attorney within 24 hours of the incident.