LIVE OAK -- A 43-year-old woman left blind by a shotgun blast Friday night was being used as a human shield during a fight between two men, witnesses said.
The alleged shooter, who twice topped Santa Cruz County's Most Wanted list in the past year and is a convicted felon, had been on the lam for nearly a year after failing to report to County Jail in May. Damian Axel Herrera, 20, of Watsonville, who deputies called a gang member, was due to serve a six-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to a felony firearms charge on April 18, 2012.
Herrera and an unidentified man got into a fight outside a Live Oak apartment complex about 10 p.m. Friday. Witnesses said Herrera fired a sawed-off shotgun at the unidentified man, who had grabbed a local real estate agent who was visiting someone in the complex and was using her as a shield. The blast struck two people and left the woman unable to see, something her sister hopes is temporary.
Wednesday, Grace Cruit said her sister was moved from an intensive care unit and is recovering though she is uncertain if her sister will be regain her eyesight.
"Her life has been so drastically affected," said Cruit, who pleaded for witnesses to help authorities identify the shooter.
Many have been reluctant to talk to investigators because they fear retaliation.
"I don't understand how somebody can do this and result in a lot of pain and hurt, and people won't even come forward," Cruit
Santa Cruz County sheriff's deputy April Skalland said deputies arrested Herrera on a separate warrant a few hours after the 10 p.m. Friday shooting.
Skalland said Herrera is suspected to be involved in the shooting but has not been charged. A second suspect remains on the lam.
The sawed-off shotgun that deputies believe was used in the attack was recovered hours later while serving a search warrant at a Soquel Avenue hotel where they also found Herrera.
The Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office told the Sentinel earlier this week that the victim was 63 and lived in the complex, both of which are inaccurate. She is 43 and does not live at the complex on the 1300 block of 30th Avenue but was visiting someone who lives there.
Sheriff's deputies said Herrera was with friend Giovanna Hagio, 18, at a party at the apartment complex Friday night when Herrera got into an argument.
Herrera left the party and later returned with another man. Herrera appeared drunk, witnesses said. He and another man were outside the complex arguing when the female victim walked by.
The unidentified man taunted Herrera and used the woman as a shield, witnesses said. Witnesses say Herrera pulled out a sawed-off shotgun and fired it, striking the 22-year-old man and the 43-year-old woman.
The pellets from the bullet hit the female victim in the face, witnesses said. The unidentified 22-year-old was treated and released from the hospital Friday. After the shooting, Herrera and the other man deputies identified as a suspect fled.
Witnesses gave authorities conflicting descriptions of the second man involved in the shooting. Skalland said he had long hair and appeared to be a Latino in his 20s.
About 1 a.m. Saturday, deputies served a search warrant at a Soquel Avenue hotel and found Herrera and Hagio, Skalland said. A sawed-off shotgun was recovered in Hagio's car.
Hagio was arrested on suspicion of possession of an illegal weapon. She was taken to Santa Cruz County Jail and later released on $5,000 bail.
Herrera remained in County Jail on Wednesday without bail, records show.
Herrera, who also has a juvenile criminal record, pleaded no contest to a felony charge of unlawful carry of a firearm in a vehicle on April 18, 2012, according to court records.
Judge Paul Burdick allowed Herrera to be released at the time but ordered him to return to custody on May 16, 2012, to start his prison term, according to records. He never returned.
Burdick and the attorneys in the case could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
Colleagues of the shooting victim said they were saddened by the attack.
"It's a tragedy," said Robert Bailey, broker and partner at Bailey Properties, where the victim worked as an agent. "She's somebody who put her family at the center of her life."
The Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office asks anyone with information to call dispatch at 831-471-1121.
Follow Sentinel reporter Stephen Baxter on Twitter at Twitter.com/sbaxter--sc
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