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Video: Atwater man beat 73-year-old aunt to death, police say

ATWATER — A man who allegedly called 911 and told a dispatcher that he had killed his 73-year-old aunt was arrested after the call led Atwater police to a grim discovery.

Orlando Becerra, 25, was arrested Saturday at his 2501 Winton Way apartment after police received the call shortly after 6 p.m.

Inside the apartment, they discovered 73-year-old Maria Branco, who had been beaten so severely that she was “barely recognizable,” said Atwater Assistant Police Chief Frank Pietro.

Pietro said Becerra also was inside the apartment, covered in blood. Police said they believe he used a cordless phone to beat the victim.

Branco was flown to Doctor’s Medical Center of Modesto and died Sunday morning, Pietro said. Becerra was booked Sunday on homicide charges.

Atwater Detective Armando Echevarria said investigators are unsure why the aunt was killed, although Becerra was making “pretty irrational” statements involving the victim and his mother when police arrived. Becerra also exhibited no remorse and seemed “mellow,” Echevarria said.

Becerra told police that he had been released from Marie Green Psychiatric Center only a few days before.

Police were “stunned” upon arriving at the scene, Pietro said, particularly because the crime involved an elderly woman. “That’s what is really sad about this whole case,” Pietro said.

The victim was unconscious in a pool of blood in the living room of the apartment with severe trauma to the left side of her face and a compound fracture to her right forearm. She was pronounced dead at 10 a.m. Sunday, Echevarria said.

Police said the suspect had been living in the apartment with his mother — and they believe the victim was visiting the apartment when the attack occurred. Pietro said the victim also lived in Atwater.

Becerra’s mother wasn’t home when the crime happened, Echevarria said.

Becerra refused to answer questions from police during a brief interview, Echevarria said. He said Becerra had previously been arrested for drug-related offenses and crimes committed while he was a juvenile.

He isn’t known to police as a gang member, Echevarria said.

On Monday morning, a carpet cleaner was inside the apartment where Branco was killed.

Aidee Barreto, the victim’s 34-year-old daughter, said she could “not find the words” to describe the pain she feels from her mother’s violent death. “She thought everybody was good. I can’t believe he did this,” Barreto said.

Barreto said the suspect had a history of mental illness — and was also known to threaten and beat his own mother. "I said, ‘Don’t you dare hurt my mom,’” Barreto recalled saying to Becerra. “Look at the surprise he gave me.”

Barreto said her mother “fought hard” during her final moments of life, adding that she and her mother had a very close relationship. “She was the perfect mom. She gave me good manners and a good education. She was the greatest mom,” Barreto said.

Linda Andrus, a neighbor who described herself as a friend of Branco, walked outside her apartment, clutching the victim’s dog — a white Chihuahua-mix with brown spots named Colina.

Andrus described Branco as a frail woman who was on dialysis and had suffered from kidney failure. “She was such a sweetheart of a woman. She would do anything for anybody. She really would,” Andrus cried, when describing Branco. “I don’t think it’s all totally sunk in yet.”

As for what could have caused Becerra to kill his own aunt, Andrus said she didn’t know, although she acknowledged feeling uncomfortable around him.

Becerra is being held at the John Latorraca Correctional Center in lieu of $1 million bail.

The homicide was Atwater’s second this year and the seventh for Merced County.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

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