Mark Berrios reveals details in Olen Lee Hepler murder from behind bars
12/13/2017 5:06 pm PST
Mark Berrios has spent 23 years in the Northwest Florida Reception Center prison in Florida for killing a man. But the story behind the case has many believing he should have never been there in the first place.
Berrios is a confessed killer. At just 15 years old he put a bullet in the head of the man who had taken in him in off the streets.
But the murder is not Mark's darkest secret. And what he tells Crime Watch Daily now raises a painful debate: Is Mark Barrios a cold-blooded killer, or a teenager who used street justice to become an unlikely hero?
Mark Berrios was a typical rambunctious boy growing up in Jacksonville, Florida. He was one of three children, and the spoiled baby of family.
"We had a pretty good life here in the beginning," said Mark's mother Margaret Loring.
"We just entertained with ourselves, but of course we picked on him because he was the youngest," said Mark's sister Nicole Berrios.
By the time he was a teenager, Mark's sister Nicole wasn't the only one in the house picking on Mark.
"My dad's very abusive, like physically, so I know he hurt Mark," Nicole Berrios tells Crime Watch Daily.
Mark's parents eventually divorce, but then his mom was forced to work long hours to support three kids.
"I wasn't really at that time paying a lot of attention to him. I was working, I got my real estate license," Margaret said. "And he just got lost."
At a very young age, Mark was on his own, and started running away from home.
"Because he wanted some things in life that I couldn't provide him, some Air Jordan shoes, he wanted to drive at 14, 15 years old, and I just wouldn't let him, and so he rebelled a little bit," said Margaret.
Petty childhood rebellion soon escalates into real trouble with the law. Mark beats up a classmate.
"I blame myself. I should have been watching him better," said Margaret.
At just 15, Mark was sentenced to a 30-day program for troubled teens in Daytona Beach, Florida. But Mark doesn't stay long.
"He ran from that program. We brought him back to court and he ran again, and he just would really always come home though," said Margaret.
Until he ran into a 47-year-old used-car salesman named Olen Lee Hepler. Hepler spotted Mark standing on a street corner and stops to pick him up.
"He told him he needed a ride to Jacksonville, and that's where it all started," said Margaret Loring.
Hepler drives Mark home, then gives Mark his number and tells him to call him if he ever needs anything.
"Of course I was angry with him for running from the program and taking a ride from a stranger. He told me he was a very nice man, blah, blah, blah," said Margaret.
Margaret orders her son back to the juvenile program to finish out his 30-day sentence. Mark doesn't stick around long.
"I was actually waiting for him to come home because that was his M.O. He would run away and come home," said Margaret. "He got hungry, he would come home. He was justs always coming home."
But this time Mark doesn't run home to his mom. Instead, he makes what will be a tragic mistake: Mark Berrios calls Lee Hepler. Mark says after he met Helpler in Daytona Beach, the man brought him to his home, where Mark stayed with him as a young teen for a number of nights. Hepler didn't have any children, but his home was a fantasy land for teenage boys.
"He had different-sized clothes in the closet for different size children," said Margaret Loring. "He had video games for them. He had bicycles, he had motorcycles."
Hepler takes mark on a airplane ride and gave him an ATM card.
"'Here's a card with $200 on it.' He bought him alcohol. He let him drink, he let him drive," said Margaret.
But the naïve 15-year-old is about to step into a living hell.
"He asked me if I wanted to watch porn, and I was young, I was like 'Yeah, OK. No problem,' and put on the porn, and just watching it, and started to put his hands on me," Mark Berrios tells Crime Watch Daily.
Hepler's generosity comes with a price. He wants something in exchange: Mark's body. Instead, Hepler gets a bullet in the back of the head.
"I shot him," said Berrios. "I didn't mean -- I don't even remember shooting him."
Mark Berrios tells Crime Watch Daily that he doesn't dispute he killed Lee Hepler. But he says it was not a calculated murder. He insists it was in a desperate move to protect himself.
Mark Berrios tells Crime Watch Daily a story he's never told anyone. Why?
"I just woke up one day and was like, 'I can face this, I can do this,'" Mark tells Crime Watch Daily.
For 23 long years, the convicted teenage killer has only revealed part of what pushed him to murder Olen Lee Hepler.
"We were watching a TV program and he told me 'Come sit next to me,' he wanted to talk to me. So I went over there," said Mark.
Mark, just 15 years old at the time in 1994, remembers every disturbing detail.
"He started rubbing on my shoulders, asked me how I liked living there," said Mark.
Then, Mark says, Hepler became aroused and tried to fondle him. In a panic, the teen told cops, he grabbed Hepler's gun off a bookshelf. A struggle ensued and Mark shot Hepler.
"Grab my stuff, grabbed his car keys," said Mark. "That's the only way I can get back home."
Mark, 15, is too scared to go home, so he stops at a bank and withdraws cash using an ATM card Hepler had given him. He was captured on surveillance video still wearing the hat Hepler bought him on a trip to Disney World.
"Not a lot, maybe a couple hundred dollars," said Mark. "Got motel rooms."
After four days on the run, cops finally spot Mark driving Hepler's missing Bronco.
"He was found with the victim's gun in his possession and found with the victim's vehicle, so there was a lot of evidence that Mr. Berrios is the one that did this," said Florida Assistant State Attorney Chris Miller.
The teen immediately confesses to the murder, but claims self-defense.
"He was hysterical. He told me the guy tried to rape him," said Mark's mother Margaret Loring.
Mark's mom Margaret tells Crime Watch Daily that cops found evidence inside Hepler's home to support her son's story. But that's not all the mother learns.
"He was under investigation at the time when he picked up my son, by Florida Department of Law Enforcement," said Margaret. "For child sex crimes. Mr. Hepler was the ringleader of a pedophile ring. It's all on depositions in the court records."
Court records confirm Hepler was questioned about prostituting minors and child sex-trafficking. Hepler was never convicted. Cops didn't have enough to make a case, but Margaret truly believed Hepler's reputation as a pedophile was enough to clear her son.
"At that point I thought they were going to let him go," said Margaret.
But that never happens. Instead prosecutors charge the 15-year-old as an adult with first-degree murder.
"The first trial was like kangaroo court. It was the most insane thing I had ever seen in my life," said Margaret.
The judge rules that because Mark didn't have prior knowledge of Hepler's reputation as a pedophile, the allegations cannot be admitted at trial.
"When they started not wanting to have the pedophile information introduced in court, I just lost my mind, to tell you the truth," said Margaret.
"I think the judge made the right call, that the allegations of Mr. Hepler's 'bad behavior' so to speak, his skeletons, that was not admissible at trial legally," said Chris Miller.
The prosecution paints Mark Berrios as a troubled teen who murdered for money and Hepler's Ford Bronco.
But their key piece of evidence? The story Mark was telling at the time.
"Mr. Berrios's testimony at trial was essentially that the victim, Mr. Hepler, came on to him. There was a struggle, he grabbed the gun, and during the course of the struggle the gun went off. He testified that when he left the house, the victim's head was kind of off the couch, off to the side," said Miller.
"When the paramedic and the victim's brother found his body, the victim's head was lying directly on top of a pillow on the couch. Which to me, that means the victim is lying face down in the couch at the time he's shot."
The jury agreed and sentenced the teen to life behind bars.
But now after 23 years behind bars, Mark Berrios claims he's been living a painful lie of shame, telling Crime Watch Daily a story he's never told anyone about what really happened that terrible night in Daytona Beach, Florida.
"This is the first time this is ever coming out of my mouth. I didn't tell the truth when I went to trial," said Mark Berrios.
Mark's relationship with Hepler happened more than once, and went far beyond foreplay.
"He made advances towards me," said Mark.
The very first night?
"Yes ma'am," said Mark.
And what did you do?
You let him touch you?
"I mean, I wasn't OK with it, but I wasn't, you know, I didn't do anything at the time," said Mark.
What happens the second night?
"The oral sex was the second day," said Mark.
At what point does this advance to rape?
"The third day or the fourth day," said Mark.
And he came into your room and raped you?
"Yes," said Mark.
How many times would you say you were raped inside of his home?
"At least five," said Mark. "At least five in seven days."
Mark says on the seventh night inside the home, when Hepler approached him, he knew what was about to happen.
Did you think at that moment that he was going to rape you right then and there?
"I knew it was going to happen again," said Mark. "So I just got up and walked away. I grabbed his gun."
And when you went back out there what happened?
"He looked up and me and I told him 'Don't, don't look at me. Don't look at me, don't talk to me, don't say anything to me,'" said Mark.
Did he try to attack you?
"No, I don't think so," said Mark.
And what did you do?
"I shot him."
You did this because of in fear of what was going to happen later?
"Absolutely," said Mark.
To this day Mark is still so traumatized he has trouble admitting what happened -- or even saying the word
How did you get to a point where you could actually come out and say "I was raped"?
"I still can't," said Mark.
Would you say you held back in the courtroom on the stand as a 15-year-old because you were embarrassed to tell people you were raped?
"Absolutely. It's still embarrassing," said Mark.
Why should anyone believe you?
"I don't know. It's the truth."
But prosecutors aren't buying Mark's disturbing new revelation.
"I'm not saying it's not true. I don't know, I wasn't there, but there's some red flags there in terms of the credibility. The timing. I would think if I were a defendant in his shoes, I would let it all come to bear. I would tell the jury, the 12 members of my community that are going to be deciding my fate, I would want them to have those facts if that's true," said Chris Miller.
But there's someone who does believe Mark Berrios.
"Because it's true. What happened to Mark is what happened to me," Eric Levy tells Crime Watch Daily.
"He may have deserved some kind of reprimand, but not life without parole at 15," said Mark's mother Margaret Loring. "He shot a pedophile who was a pedophile for over 30 years. He shot him with the pedophile's gun at the pedophile's home where he was keeping my son."
Mark's family calls him courageous, but prosecutors believe he's a desperate inmate looking for a get-out-of-jail-free card.
Do you feel justice has been served?
"I do. I feel it's fair," said Florida Assistant State Attorney Chris Miller. "Mr. Hepler was executed at the end of the day, he was shot in cold blood in the back of the head while he was lying on the sofa."
"I would've done what he did, I was looking for him for years. I would've killed Hepler myself definitely," said Eric Levy.
Eric Levy's rage toward Hepler began the night he met the 47-year-old car salesman. Eric was also just 15 years old.
"That night he raped me. Physically raped me. I mean forcefully," said Eric Levy.
Was that the only time you were raped?
"Oh no. At the house," said Eric.
How many times after would you say you were raped?
"A lot. Ten," said Eric.
The naïve teen was lured in by Hepler with alcohol, money and the promise of a fantasy land. Instead, Eric says, he was trapped in hell with a monster of the worst kind.
You're saying Hepler was a predator.
"Oh, up and down the East Coast. Hundreds of kids. Hundreds," said Eric.
Can you explain to everyone why you were unable to just pack your things and run away?
"I didn't think I was wanted at home," said Eric.
According to the Orlando Sentinel newspaper, that was Hepler's M.O. He preyed on lost teenage boys, had his way with them, then prostituted them out to an underground ring of pedophiles. It's also been reported he exploited boys in child pornography.
You believe there could be other victims out there?
"Absolutely, yeah," said Eric Levy.
Eric says he was so haunted by Hepler's abuse that he actually spent years trying to hunt Hepler down himself.
"I planned to go down there on a bus and just find him and kill him. Throw him out in the swamp," said Eric.
Instead, a random Google search finally leads Eric Levy to Mark Berrios.
"One day I just punched in the right words and up came this picture of Mark Berrios, and I saw the word 'Hepler,' and I said 'Oh, what's this?' And it said this teen shot this guy," said Eric. "It was bittersweet, because he deserved it, but yet this kid's in jail for the rest of his life for doing it."
Eric Levy reaches out to Mark behind bars.
"I just could not let Mark sit in jail for this. Not knowing who that monster was," said Eric.
What did he tell you in that letter?
"He wrote me and told me basically that he felt I did the right thing and that he can't wait for me to get out," said Mark Berrios.
But there's little he or anyone else can do to overturn his life sentence. Then Mark catches an unexpected break.
"The United States Supreme Court came down with a decision that basically every juvenile who has a natural life sentence without the possibility of parole has to go back for re-sentencing," said Mark.
Mark would get another day in court to tell his story and Eric was there to back him up.
"How much more are you going to make the kid suffer? He really did society a favor," said Eric Levy.
Mark Berrios was resentenced to a sentence of 30 years.
"I've done 23 and some change, I've got about six years and seven months left," said Mark.
What was that day like?
"It was joyous," said Mark's sister Nicole. "He didn't get to walk out that day but that doesn't mean he won't soon. I don't think he'll serve the next seven years at all."
But for now, Mark Berrios still sits behind bars.
Do you consider your son a hero?
"I do. From day one. And I am proud of my son, as proud as a mom could be for what happened, but no other child has been molested since Hepler's been dead," said Mark's mother Margaret Loring.
Your mom and sister say by doing what you did you stopped a dangerous man and essentially they call you a hero. What do you say to that?
"That's not the right way of thinking, if you ask me. Somebody died," said Mark Berrios.
What do you want to say to the victim's family?
"I'm sorry. I mean I've already written them and asked them for forgiveness," said Mark.
What did they say?
"I'm forgiven," said Mark. "That's all they wrote."
How do you forgive yourself?
"I don't know that I have," said Mark.
What do you say to all the people who have stood by you through all these years?
"I can't even put into words -- they've always been there for me," said Mark Berrios. "I don't even know how to show appreciation like that."