Cold murder case resurrected in Cayucos firefighter’s human trafficking trial

Oscar Higueros Jr. and his mother Graciela Higueros pose for a photo in the living room of their Los Osos home in May 1992. Two years earlier, sheriff’s deputies found Oscar Higueros Sr. in that living room, the victim of a fatal stabbing. Higueros Jr. is currently on trial in a human trafficking case.
Oscar Higueros Jr. and his mother Graciela Higueros pose for a photo in the living room of their Los Osos home in May 1992. Two years earlier, sheriff’s deputies found Oscar Higueros Sr. in that living room, the victim of a fatal stabbing. Higueros Jr. is currently on trial in a human trafficking case. The Tribune

Acting on a call from the family of Oscar Higueros Sr., sheriff’s detectives walked into the Los Osos resident’s home in April 1990 and encountered a gruesome sight: a lifeless Higueros lying on the living room floor, his body devastated by stab wounds.

Unsolved for more than a quarter of a century, the Higueros murder faded from the public consciousness long ago, the crime relegated to the cold-case category. But, according to court files, his son, who is now on trial in a human trafficking case, told his alleged victim he had killed his father.

While another man has been considered the prime suspect for 26 years, the crime sheds light on the violent background that helped shape the world of Oscar Higueros Jr., a volunteer Cayucos fire captain who is now accused of committing violence against multiple women.

A jury is being selected in San Luis Obispo Superior Court for Higueros Jr., who faces 35 charges, including forcible rape. According to the District Attorney’s Office, he paid $150 to have sex with a 17-year-old Los Osos girl in July 2014 after responding to an ad posted on Craigslist by Richard Scott Brooks, 40, of San Francisco.

This month, Brooks was sentenced to 61 years and eight months to life in prison for his role in the case.

In a bizarre twist, the teen moved in with Higueros Jr., 40, of Cambria soon after the July 2014 rendezvous. During that time, the prosecution contends, Higueros Jr. tried to make the teen his sex slave.

Higueros Jr. has pleaded not guilty. His attorney, Jay Peterson, has repeatedly refused to speak to The Tribune.

In addition to the teen, seven other women are expected to testify that Higueros Jr. forced them to have sex with him, two of them claiming he tightened a belt around their necks.

According to testimony from the preliminary hearing, Higueros Jr. wanted the Los Osos teen to sign a “slave contract,” allowing him to do anything sexually that he wanted with her. In a motion filed this month, Deputy District Attorney Greg Devitt wrote that Higueros repeatedly told the victim he would kill her if she went to law enforcement.

“On at least one occasion, defendant said he killed his father,” Devitt wrote.

Because the investigation is still active, the Sheriff’s Office can’t comment on who has been questioned in the murder case, spokesman Tony Cipolla said.

Violent childhood

One of three children, Higueros Jr. was only 14 when his father was killed. Oscar Higueros Sr. — whom his wife once described to The Tribune as “a very mean man” — had a history of violence toward his own family.

According to Tribune archives, Higueros Sr. was convicted in 1986 of assault with a deadly weapon in a charge that stemmed from an attack on his family. The following year, he was convicted of violating probation after additional violent incidents involving his family. In January 1987, the wife, Graciela Higueros, filed a temporary restraining order against her husband. In that order, she wrote, “he makes our lifes (sic) miserable by threatening to kill us and set the house on fire.”

On Jan. 5, 1987, she wrote, Oscar Higueros Sr. tried to kill her and her children with a knife and rifle before her brother-in-law, Arturo Vasquez, intervened. Police were called, she wrote, and Higueros Sr. was arrested.

After serving a year in prison, according to Tribune archives, Higueros Sr. was set to be off parole on April 21, 1990, but he was killed the day before.

According to detectives at the time, his family members said they were out of town for the weekend and unable to reach Higueros Sr., so they asked the Sheriff’s Office to check on him. That’s when Higueros Sr., a 39-year-old former custodian at Cal Poly, was found dead.

Graciela Higueros told detectives in 1990 that several pieces of jewelry and cash were missing, according to Tribune archives, suggesting robbery could have been a motive. Two years later, she told The Tribune she suspected it might have been another woman because “he liked women. He was womanizing.”

The number most recently listed for Graciela Higueros has been disconnected.

Soon after the murder, sheriff’s detectives focused on a man named Hugo Hernan Barrientos, who came to the United States from Guatemala in 1989. Two months before the killing, Barrientos moved to San Luis Obispo County, where he got a job washing dishes at the Madonna Inn. Barrientos worked at the inn until a few days before the murder and left the county without ever picking up his last paycheck.

After the killing, detectives spoke with Vasquez, who was the suspect’s roommate and brother-in-law. Vasquez was accompanied by a woman who served as his interpreter — Graciela Higueros.

Meanwhile, detectives questioned Barrientos in Los Angeles, where he was staying with his sister. Detectives were supposed to meet with him again, but Barrientos fled to Guatemala.

Detectives eventually traced Barrientos to a remote village 300 miles south of Guatemala City. Barrientos was playing soccer when local police tried to arrest him, but he began firing a gun at them and fled again. Two years later, according to Tribune archives, Barrientos was in jail in South America. But while detectives believed evidence linked him to the crime, they said there wasn’t enough to justify an arrest warrant.

“We’re certain he’s the one,” Detective Steve Crawford told The Tribune in 1992. “We just need the evidence to prove it.”

Two years later, Crawford said detectives were “exploring the possibility someone who knew (Higueros Sr.) might have been involved in some way in his death.”

Case still open

Barrientos is still considered a suspect in the case, Cipolla said. While Barrientos has a criminal history, Cipolla said, he has never been arrested for the Higueros murder.

After his father’s death, Higueros Jr. graduated from Morro Bay High School and pursued a career as a firefighter. According to court documents, Higueros Jr. worked as a firefighter with the Morro Bay Fire Department and was seeking permanent employment when a former girlfriend filed a restraining order against him. The girlfriend described Higueros Jr. as Hispanic and Guatemalan.

While that girlfriend said she feared for her life after the relationship ended, others, including a different former girlfriend, wrote letters of support, attesting to his good character.

The prosecution’s documentation of his alleged violent behavior picks up in the following year, when a girlfriend referred to as April Doe reported to Morro Bay police that Higueros Jr. had raped her.

April Doe did not want to press charges, according to court records, saying, “I just want to document this so if it happens to someone else.”

Higueros Jr. told police the sex was consensual.

He was never charged with a crime until the human trafficking case.

Patrick S. Pemberton: 805-781-7903, @ppemberton