About this story: This report was written by Edward Humes, the author of 13 nonfiction books and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his Orange County Register coverage of the military. The story is based on extensive reporting by the Register’s staff, including Tony Saavedra, David Ferrell, Kelly Puente, Tom Berg and Ian Wheeler, previously published stories and legal documents obtained by the newspaper since the arrest of Scott Dekraai after the worst mass shooting in Orange County history. Read more at the Register’s ‘Inside the Snitch Tank’ site
On his last day of freedom, Scott Dekraai spoke on the phone with his ex-wife. Let’s meet for coffee, he suggested.
Michelle Fournier was shocked. A day earlier they had squared off at yet another court hearing in their acrimonious battle over custody of their 8-year-old son. Things had not gone Dekraai’s way at the hearing, and the argument had continued on the phone, until Dekraai brought his ex-wife up short with his suggestion that they meet in person.
No way, Fournier responded. She did not want to see him. Definitely not.
This would prove to be a fateful decision. If he couldn’t have a one-on-one, Dekraai decided after hanging up on Fournier, he’d just have to confront his ex-wife at her workplace instead – one last time. Then he walked out to his garage to survey his well-oiled collection of five pistols, four rifles and a 12-gauge shotgun.
The violence that followed just a few hours later would make national head-lines.
It would alter the course of lives and families for years to come.
It would drag a peaceful, tight-knit community into an exclusive club no one wishes to join: the fraternity of towns marred by mass murder.
And, finally, the official response to Dekraai’s rampage would expose and shame Orange County authorities who in their zeal to ensure a win in court had stopped playing by the rules that ensure justice for all.
Scott Dekraai, without ever knowing it, had exposed the snitch tank.
No town could have been less prepared for Scott Dekraai.
Scott Dekraai was, by most accounts, an angry man.
He had displayed his rage many times over the years to those closest to him. There was the stepfather he beat up over rent. There was his ex-wife, who told a friend that he put a gun to her head shortly after their wedding. And there was the ex-employer he had raged at and sued (unsuccessfully) for firing him for drug use on the job.
Neighbors and co-workers who knew him casually over the years thought him a great guy – even those who crewed with him aboard the close confines of ships and his neighbors in Huntington Beach at the time of the shootings. But those who knew him best agree that his life and behavior, already troubled, went drastically downhill in 2007 after a boat accident severely injured his legs. Despite multiple surgeries, the 41-year-old tugboat crewman had been left disabled, in constant pain, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome, and possessed of a hair-trigger temper.
He was never the same after that accident, more than one friend lamented. Sometimes Dekraai wished aloud that his most badly mangled leg had been amputated instead of salvaged. At least then the pain and the rage finally might have eased.
The latest custody dispute with his ex proved to be the final straw, Dekraai would later say.
Late on the morning of Oct. 12, 2011, he walked out of his neat single-story house in Huntington Beach. He walked by the lawn he kept freshly trimmed and the gray house paint kept perfect, with a decorative anchor set smartly in the garden and his American flag snapping in the breeze above a concrete driveway.
As he climbed into his white pickup truck and headed north to the next city up the coast, there was just one jarring element is this fastidious portrait of suburban life: Dekraai left the house in a bulletproof vest.
• • •
The center of life in Seal Beach is Old Town, with its old-fashioned Main Street – where local businesses rule, the curbside parking is unmetered, and the fanciest restaurant’s only dress requirement is shirt and shoes. This is Orange County’s (and Southern California’s) least known, least fashionable, throwback beach town, set against the concrete-lined San Gabriel River that divides Orange County from Los Angeles County. Seal Beach lacks the surf-town hustle of Huntington Beach, the high-end glitz of Newport Beach, the Riviera splendor of Laguna Beach. At the foot of Main Street stands the gray timbers of the Seal Beach Pier, and the stretch of sand on either side of it is so broad, flat and empty that, on weekdays at least, it’s possible to walk the strand and feel lonely.
It was not always this way. Seal Beach started where its sister beach towns to the south have ended up, glamorous and tourist-laden. Seal Beach was the first of the beach towns to be served by the Red Car Line, bringing in the ocean-bound hordes beginning in 1904. The city fathers enticed them by building what was then the longest pleasure pier on the West Coast, with 52 giant “scintillators” left over from the most recent world’s fair erected at the end. These huge light standards, arrayed like a battalion of soldiers staring out to sea, cast brilliant rainbows of light onto the water for night swimming. By 1920, the Jewel Café and the Seal Beach Dance Pavilion and Bathhouse with its 90-foot plunge flanked the pier and were the talk of the coast. Seal Beach was a must-stop for weekend beachgoers with a quarter to burn on the trolley, as well as for the stars of the silent screen arriving in their roadsters and limos. Cecil B. DeMille parted the waters in his first filming of the “Ten Commandments” here, as sightseers plied the beach walk on miniature wicker cars powered by electric motors. A giant roller coaster two blocks long towered over all, and celebrities popped into town aboard their private planes, which landed at the Seal Beach Airport, famous for its Airport Club 24-hour casino.
Prohibition and the Great Depression, followed by the demise of the Red Cars, ended all that, grinding Seal Beach’s incarnation as Sin City into dust. In its place arose a quiet family town known for its hokey, beloved Main Street Christmas parade, and for being one of the safest places to live in Orange County. Name a crime, and it occurs less often here than any other town in the area, and at a rate far below the national average. From 2005 to October 2011, there was exactly one murder in Seal Beach: an 88-year-old man shot his 86-year-old wife as she lay in a nursing home suffering from advanced dementia. The family begged the community for understanding in the wake of this “mercy killing.”
No town could have been less prepared for Scott Dekraai as he turned off Pacific Coast Highway a block away from Main Street and pulled into the busy Bay City Center shopping plaza. He drove past the center’s collection of shops, restaurants and offices painted in a beachy color scheme of cream and sea-green. Then he parked near a two-story building topped with a distinctive cupola, its second floor dominated by a dermatology clinic and its first floor split between a steak restaurant and a small business called Salon Meritage. Dekraai sat a moment and stared at the hair salon where his ex-wife worked, then stepped out of his truck in his body armor and walked to the door, armed to the teeth.
You shouldn’t be meeting that guy anywhere.
Earlier that day, Michelle Fournier packed a lunch for her son Dominic, then drove the second-grader from her Garden Grove home to McGaugh Elementary School in Seal Beach. She had two adult children from a first marriage but Dominic was her baby, and the bubbly 48-year-old doted on the boy whose custody and time she reluctantly shared with her ex-husband Dekraai. She particularly loved to cut Dominic’s hair herself, but the custody disputes had become so bitter and petty that Dekraai would take the boy to someone else for a haircut just to spite her. On Oct. 12, as the 7:55 a.m. bell sounded, Dominic marched off to class, his black school bag slung over his shoulder. Fournier watched him go, then left to get ready for work at nearby Salon Meritage.
Mother and son would never see each other again.
Not long afterward, Salon Meritage began coming to life for the day. Stylist Jeffery Segall arrived to help open up, followed by his friend and colleague Victoria Buzzo, who burst in wearing one of her signature splashy outfits. This time it was black shorts and a white blouse, with her hair tied up in a twist.
“Are you going to tap dance for us?” Segall joked. Buzzo cracked up.
Another stylist, Gordon Gallego, arrived to have his own hair cut by Buzzo before his first customer walked in. Just as doctors make difficult patients, hair stylists can have a hard time sitting in the chair passively, and Gallego and Buzzo always turned their session into a good-natured battle royale. She loved doing his hair “her way,” Gallego would remember at Buzzo’s memorial service. “It was always an event,” Segall added.
Gradually Salon Meritage settled into its Wednesday morning routine. Paul Wilson, husband of Meritage manicurist Christy Lynne Wilson, came by for a 10:30 a.m. haircut with Gallego. Meritage owner Randy Fannin and his wife, Sandy, brought in some supplies for the shop. The salon’s regular customers began strolling in for their appointments.
Hattie Stretz of Los Alamitos, a lively presence at age 73, arrived to have her nails done by her daughter, newlywed Laura Webb Elody. Stretz was popular with the other stylists and often brought homemade pies to the shop.
Fournier came in next, offering her coworkers half a lemon cake with cheese cream frosting, a leftover from a treat she had baked for her adult son, Chad. Fournier was popular at the salon, the kind of stylist customers came back to see year in and year out. “She could gab away. She was one of those girlfriends you could never get enough of,” recalled salon client Kari Salveson. She had been coming to have Fournier do her hair for a decade and had a simple explanation for that loyalty: “She made you smile and she made you laugh.”
Fournier’s friends and coworkers knew all about her troubles with her ex-husband. They had been married only three years after a whirlwind romance. They had been great as boyfriend-girlfriend, one friend observed, but terrible as husband-wife. Fournier left him in 2006, before his crippling accident in 2007. It was Dekraai who filed for divorce. Since then, he had come by the salon more than once to fight with her right in front of the staff and customers. She had complained of his “manic” desire to control every aspect and minute of Dominic’s life.
The salon workers made for a close-knit group, like an extended family, and the other stylists did not care for Dekraai. Buzzo once shoved him out the door. That Wednesday, Fournier told her colleagues that her ex-husband had asked her to meet him for coffee. “Can you believe that?” she marveled.
“I hope you said ‘no,’” Gallego responded. “You shouldn’t be meeting that guy anywhere.”
As lunchtime approached, customers left the salon and others arrived. Seal Beach youth soccer volunteer Michele Fast had to cut short a phone call with her mother so she could make her haircut appointment at Meritage. A mother of three, Fast was well-known and well-liked in The Hill area of Seal Beach, where the 47-year-old could be seen every day on her brisk walks through the neighborhood with her Labrador. This would be her first time patronizing Salon Meritage.
Hattie Stretz, meanwhile, decided to linger at the salon, extending her nail work into a hairdo. While her daughter Laura did the styling, Stretz chatted with her salon favorite, Buzzo. Those two always chattered together like old friends. Manicurist Christy Wilson then decided to take advantage of a lull to slip into Fournier’s chair for a wash and cut.
Sometime around 1 p.m. Segall’s last client of the day canceled. He had planned to stay all afternoon, but now could cut loose, yet another fateful decision that day. “The weather is beautiful,” he announced. “I’m going to enjoy it.” He heard laughter as he walked out the door – the mood at Salon Meritage was frequently joyful.
“See you tomorrow, buddy,” salon owner Fannin called after him, because that’s what he always said in farewell.
About 15 minutes later, at 1:21 p.m., a balding, hulking, overweight man wearing a bulletproof vest walked into the salon. Scott Dekraai came armed with three powerful handguns – a 9 mm Springfield, a Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum, and a Heckler & Koch .45 – and plenty of ammunition stuffed in the pockets of his cargo pants.
It would be over in two minutes.
Hold on a minute, Scott. Please don’t do this.
Scott Dekraai had stopped halfway between Huntington and Seal Beach that day, pulling over at the windswept expanse of Bolsa Chica State Beach to sit on the sand in his bulletproof vest and think about killing his ex-wife. It didn’t take him long to decide.
When he burst into the salon with guns in hand, Dekraai strode, limping but fast, right up to Fournier. The rest of the people in the room – stylists holding brushes and scissors, customers swaddled with smocks in their chairs – froze in surprise. Randy Fannin broke the spell first. The devoted grandfather, active and vigorous at age 62, a man who loved his work and his staff, which loved him right back, pleaded with Dekraai.
“Hold on a minute, Scott. Please don’t do this. There’s another way. Let’s go outside and talk.”
Fannin’s wife of 17 years, out of sight mixing dye in the back of the salon, heard it all. Sandy Fannin heard her husband’s plea, and she heard what happened a heartbeat later: Dekraai opened fire. A seemingly endless series of loud, jolting pops followed as Sandy stayed under cover and the salon filled with screams. When a lull in the gunfire finally came, Sandy started to emerge to check on her Randy, but then the shooting resumed. Dekraai had been reloading. There were several pauses before silence fell for good.
Dekraai killed Fournier first, shooting his ex-wife in the head and chest without a word.
Christy Wilson died in Fournier’s chair moments later. The 47-year-old stylist and mother of three had testified against Dekraai in the custody case. He shot her two times. Her husband Paul, who had come and gone earlier that day at the salon, would later find a letter at home from the woman he called his soulmate: “I went into work late today, so I sat outside thinking about how lucky I am, how lucky we are to have our house, our kids and each other. I love you every day, good, bad and ugly. We are each other’s worlds. We have to keep our love strong and have the lifetime together we promised each other, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer until death do us part.”
As Dekraai turned from his second victim, Fannin, scissors in hand, moved toward him. Whether he was still trying to calm Dekraai or hoped to stop him with the only weapon at hand, no one can say for sure. Dekraai shot him at point-blank range. Those who knew him aren’t surprised that the salon owner tried to intervene. “He was the most peaceful man. He truly believed in the best of everybody,” recalled stylist Lorraine Bruyelle, who was supposed to have been there at the time with her kindergartner daughter. But she had been delayed when her little girl said she was hungry after school, and they had stopped for a second lunch. By the time they arrived at the salon, an officer blocked the door. “Everybody is dead in there,” she recalls him saying.
After killing Fannin, Dekraai strode through the salon shooting others as he passed. He shot and killed Laura Webb Elody, then turned his gun on her mother, Hattie Stretz, as she sat in her daughter’s chair. First-time customer Michelle Fast, who had been in such a rush to get there, was shot in the chest. So was Victoria Buzzo in her “tap dance” outfit. Finally Dekraai shot and killed 65-year-old Lucia Kondas of Huntington Beach, the retired administrator of the Orange County Health Care Agency’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services, whose funeral a few days later would be packed with mourners she had helped in life.
Dekraai shot most of his victims multiple times, in the head and chest – where the damage, and the likelihood of death, would be greatest.
There were as many as eight other men and women inside the salon during Scott Dekraai’s rampage. Several survived by running outside. Three people locked themselves in a facial room and remained silent, though one of them made a whispered call to 911, begging for help as her friends screamed and died. Two others hid in the bathroom. One stylist threw himself onto the floor with the dead and dying, covered his head with his hands and hoped the killer would bypass him. He did. When the shooting finally stopped and he heard the sound of someone leaving the salon, he reached for his phone to call for help, joining what by then had become a chorus of 911 calls from in and around the salon.
Outside, Dekraai wasn’t through shooting yet. As he walked to his truck in the parking lot, he noticed a green Land Rover sitting nearby, a neatly dressed, tough-looking man poised behind the wheel. To Dekraai, he looked like an off-duty or undercover cop. Fearing the man might be reaching to the floorboards for a weapon, Dekraai aimed through the closed passenger window and shot the man in the face.
Seal Beach resident David Caouette, a 64-year-old former Navy SEAL, may have looked the part of a police officer, but he was a car salesman who worked for a Land Rover dealership in Mission Viejo. He had just stopped at the shopping center for a bite at his favorite restaurant, Patty’s Place, next to Salon Meritage. And so Caouette, in the wrong place at the wrong time, became the eighth person to be killed that day by Scott Dekraai in the worst mass murder in Orange County history.
As Dekraai continued walking to his truck, face impassive, a pistol still in hand and pointed toward the sky, four men ran over from across the street. They were contractors who had been working on an oil clean-up site nearby and, rather remarkably, when they heard the gunfire they had run toward the sound. Two were retired Marines, schooled in combat. Another was a certified emergency medical technician.
The group’s leader, Doug Childers, reacted more on instinct than common sense, he’d later say. But then Dekraai spotted the advancing men and turned to face them, his gun still pointed up.
“He looked right at me,” Childers would recall. “Then he pointed it at me.”
The four men slowed to a walk. But they kept moving in, one of them barking Dekraai’s description into a cellphone to a police dispatcher. After a moment’s hesitation, Dekraai turned and walked away from the men and the area near the salon.
“He was walking casually,” another of the contractors, Michael Sauerwein, marveled afterward. “As if he was just walking down the street.”
Childers, who had worked eight years as a firefighter at the now-shuttered El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, raced to the salon door, followed by John Gallegos and EMT Brendan Peña. Sauerwein stationed himself near the door to the salon where he could keep an eye on the gunman, watching as Dekraai climbed into a shiny white Toyota Tundra pickup truck and drove off.
As the three men entered the salon, none were prepared for the scene awaiting them. Gallegos, a combat veteran with 22 years in the Marines, was shaken to the core by what he could describe only as an “ambush.”
“In combat, you’re either going to get shot or shoot somebody,” he would later explain. “Here these guys had no expectation of any of that. They had plans. They had plans! They had lives to live. … They were civilians. They were supposed to go home.”
• • •
When the sound of shooting had ended and the salon fell silent, Sandy Fannin was the first to emerge from hiding. The salon smells of shampoo and hair dye had been replaced by the gunpowder stink of cordite. Gun smoke hung in the air. Bodies and blood were everywhere. But she had eyes only for her husband sprawled on the floor. She fell on top of him and began giving the man she loved mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
Childers, at the door, surveyed the bodies and blood and saw no movement at first, heard no sound. He called out, “I’m here to help,” and after a moment, the other survivors emerged from their hiding places.
The three contractors began performing triage. Childers first tried to aid Laura Webb Elody, but she didn’t respond. Then he turned to her mother, Hattie Stretz, the oldest of the victims, and he saw she could be saved. Michele Fast, more grievously injured, still had a pulse as well. The others who had been gunned down in the salon were dead and beyond help. One of the rescuers saw Sandy Fannin working on her husband and told her that it was too late, that he was gone, but she still kept trying to breathe life back into Randy. When she finally stopped, she simply sat there amid the carnage and bustle and just held him.
Within minutes, police officers, firefighters and paramedics swarmed the scene. A homeless man pointed out the slumped, bleeding form of a man in his Land Rover, overlooked in the rush to aid the victims inside the salon. David Caouette still clung to life. Ambulances raced him, Fast and Stretz to Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. But Caouette and Fast would be pronounced dead within hours. Stretz, though in critical condition, would recover.
The lookout Sauerwein, meanwhile, gave the first police officer to arrive at the salon a description of Dekraai, his truck, and the direction the killer took when he drove away. Many months later, in a ceremony to honor the four men who risked their lives to help save others, the Seal Beach police chief would credit Sauerwein’s timely information with leading to Dekraai’s arrest within minutes of the shooting.
Outside Salon Meritage, amid the barely controlled chaos of a combined crime scene investigation and trauma rescue, Sauerwein and a gaggle of other witnesses pointed at a white pickup truck driving slowly away from the back exit of the shopping center. Incredibly, Dekraai was still in sight.
A few blocks away, less than 10 minutes after the first shot rang out, a Seal Beach patrol officer, his overhead lights flashing, pulled over Dekraai. Ordered to step out of the pickup, Dekraai calmly complied, leaving his weapons and ammo in the truck, except for three leftover magazines and some loose live rounds still in his pockets.
As the officer patted him down, then placed the suspect’s hands in brown paper bags to preserve evidence of gunshot residue, Dekraai said, “I know what I did.”
A short time later, in an interview with Seal Beach Police Detective Gary Krogman, Dekraai admitted everything, from his phone call that morning, to his contemplation of murder while sitting at the beach, to his apparent motive: a desire for retribution for his ex-wife’s behavior and victories during the custody battle. He told the detective how he had targeted his ex-wife first, then the stylist who had testified against him, then the salon owner with his scissors in hand. As he confessed, Dekraai used their first names. (Search warrant)
As for the other victims in the salon, Dekraai admitted that he just killed the rest at random. He offered an explanation of sorts to the detective for this: He simply viewed the bulk of his victims as “collateral damage.”
What kind of sick, twisted fatherly love might that be?”
By Thursday night, flowers were piled up like a crashing sea wave against the west wall of Salon Meritage, and hundreds of people had assembled there for a candlelight vigil. Friends, relatives, neighbors, youth sports teams, salon customers, even some of the good Samaritan contractors who rushed in to help – all came to pray and hug and bid farewell to the fallen. Photos were posted on the salon walls, accompanied by notes scrawled on a huge sheet of craft paper someone tacked up above the bouquets. More messages in chalk adorned the side door of the salon: “Good-bye Randy” and “RIP Friend.”
The mourners had come to comfort and be comforted, but also to seek ways to help. The local fundraising had already started, on social media and in person, in time reaching $150,000 to support the families who needed help after losing a loved one at the salon. Many in town worried about the schoolboy virtually orphaned by the massacre – his mother dead, his father jailed, likely for good. Dominic had sat for hours at McGaugh Elementary, wondering why no one had come to pick him up, until finally the police arrived with terrible news.
The gathering outside the salon was for him, and for all the others now bereft, because that, as any local could tell you, is the Seal Beach way. Here small town virtue has somehow survived tucked inside the continuous urban sprawl that is Southern California, and it shows itself most in times of great sorrow and need. “Mayberry by the Sea,” the town has been called, though not often by its residents, for this is sometimes dished as a backhanded compliment with a side of snark. But Aunt Bee and the other country folk of that fictional, idyllic, black-and-white TV setting for “The Andy Griffith Show” could have learned something about the bonds of community and caring on display outside Salon Meritage this night.
The warm glow of hundreds of hand-carried candles lit the scene with a wrenching beauty, the faces and tears of grieving men, women and children awash in the flickering golden light. City leaders spoke words of grief and support, and people flashed peace signs and dutifully applauded in response, but it was a teenager whose eloquent words moved the crowd most.
“This tragedy will not define this city. Everyone here tonight defines this city,” proclaimed college freshmen Jake Tellkamp, who had organized the vigil with a Facebook post that went viral. “I don’t want this town to be marred by this monstrosity. We will love one another like family, because there are no strangers in this town.”
The next day, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, Orange County’s most powerful law-enforcement official, drove to Seal Beach. He had called a news conference to tell the community – and the national media – what investigators had learned, and what would happen next now that Dekraai was in jail.
At first the D.A. was all business, vowing what prosecutors always vow in the face of monstrous violence: He would seek the death penalty for the killer. Indeed, he would seek eight sentences of death, he promised, so that none of the dead would be forgotten, no victim of what he called Dekraai’s sick and indiscriminate “revenge” left out. This was the businesslike portion of the news conference, expected and by the numbers.
Then the mood changed. The D.A. began speaking of the scene inside the salon and of how each of the victims perished. He named each one in turn and gave their ages. As he spoke, their smiling pictures appeared on a screen to his left. His voice grew unsteady and halting as the litany of lives cut short went on and on. When he turned to the subject of the killer’s child, his composure fled him entirely.
“While Dekraai rampaged through a salon shooting at innocent victims, the son that he professed to love was sitting in the principal’s office waiting for his mom or dad to pick him up.” At that point Rackauckas stopped and looked down at his podium, eyes wet. He had to swallow hard several times before he could resume in a shaky voice. Even the most cynical journalists in the room could see this was not lawyerly posturing or theatrics for the 6 o’clock news. Rackauckas had his own troubled childhood behind him and had been a social worker before beginning his career in the law. Now he wore the same hollow expression of grief that had been so prevalent at the nighttime vigil 12 hours earlier. The only thing missing was the candle.
When he finally mastered his feelings, the district attorney said: “That little boy is a victim now. His mother has been murdered. And he has to grow up knowing that his dad is a mass murderer. … So what kind of sick, twisted fatherly love might that be?”
This raw display of emotion would all be mostly lost on the nightly news. The broadcast distillation of long comments into staccato sound bites leaves little room for nuance. When his remarks shifted back to the killer, the note of compassion left the D.A.’s voice and he was all business again. He explained how he had dispensed with the normal capital case review, in which a committee of senior prosecutors ponders the evidence and the law then decides whether a death sentence or life in prison should be sought. Instead, Rackauckas had decided to make the call himself, bypassing such a review as an unnecessary delay.
“There are some cases that are so depraved, so callous, so malignant that there is only one punishment that might have any chance of fitting the crime. … This is the only way our society can have anything approaching justice.”
He vowed again that he would see Dekraai convicted and sentenced to die for what he had done.
• • •
Politicians promise things all the time, whether they have the power to make those vows come true or not. In the case of the most sensational and terrible crime in his jurisdiction in many years, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas appeared to have everything he needed to keep that promise, and then some.
Indeed, by the time of that news conference in Seal Beach, the People of the State of California v. Scott Evan Dekraai had become what lawyers call a “slam dunk” – a case as likely to end in prosecutorial victory as Kobe Bryant in his prime was likely to score when he held the ball above the rim.
Few big cases are put together so quickly and completely as this one. There was no painstaking canvassing for witnesses. No mystery about who did what. No fears that a suspect had not been read his Miranda rights or that he had been coerced into confession. Just the opposite. Within hours of the murders, investigators had more than a dozen witnesses inside and outside the hair salon who had identified Dekraai as the gunman. They had weapons registered to him used in eight killings and one wounding – weapons found with him in his truck moments after the crime. Bullets of the same type used in the murders were found stuffed in his pockets. They had gunshot residue on his hands, witnesses to swear he had previously threatened his ex-wife and a prior record of violence. His own stepfather had gotten a restraining order against him, a quick check of court records had revealed. There was even a motive: Dekraai’s anger and desire for revenge over the custody battle for his son, his many claims that Michelle Fournier was an unfit parent, that she barraged him with harassing phone calls. He had grilled his son about his ex-wife’s behavior so hard that he would burst into tears. “If you are crying, you’re lying,” the father told him.
And still there was more. Dekraai had confessed. Calmly, voluntarily, having been read his rights, Dekraai admitted his crimes. He had proclaimed, moments after his arrest, that he knew what he had done.
There were signs of premeditated murder, established through both his actions and his admissions. He had taken pains to assemble his arsenal, armored himself against gunshots, then paused in his 20-minute drive from his home to the salon to sit on the beach and think about killing his ex-wife. California law holds that premeditation can occur mere moments before the crime, consisting simply of deciding to kill before pulling the trigger. Just a second of reflection is all that’s needed to satisfy the legal requirement of premeditated, or first-degree, murder. But this legal concept can be hard for lay people on juries to accept, because it still seems sudden and impulsive to them. In the Dekraai case, though, the premeditation leading up to the bloodbath at Salon Meritage occurred as Hollywood portrays it in film: It happened miles and hours in advance of the crime, cold and calculated.
In short, the evidence against Dekraai after 48 hours appeared as good as it gets for the prosecution in a murder case, and as hopeless as it could be for whatever defense attorney inherited the most hated man in Orange County as a client.
And yet, out of the public view, prosecutors were afraid that their quarry would elude justice.
It had happened before.
The authorities did not play by these rules.
In 1976, another mass murderer had struck in Orange County, a crime as shocking and reviled in its day as the Salon Meritage massacre is today. Indeed, until Scott Dekraai came along, the seven people shot to death during a rampage at Cal State Fullerton had been the worst case of mass murder in county history.
The culprit in that case, Edward James Allaway, now 76, avoided a murder conviction because he was diagnosed as a delusional paranoid schizophrenic. It is fair to say that prosecutors generally abhor the insanity defense, which they usually attack in court as a ploy and a dodge of responsibility. In Allaway’s case, multiple medical experts agreed that he was insane at the time of his crimes.
A custodian at the Fullerton campus library, Allaway had delusions that led him to conclude that people at the university had been forcing his estranged wife (who left him after he allegedly assaulted and raped her) to perform in pornographic movies. With a semi-automatic rifle he bought at a local Kmart, he moved through the library lobby and basement media room systematically killing six library workers and a professor emeritus, and wounding two other staff members. Then he drove to a hotel in Anaheim where his wife worked, phoned the police and said, “I went berserk at Cal State Fullerton, and I committed some terrible act. I’d appreciate it if you people would come down and pick me up. I’m unarmed, and I’m giving myself up to you.”
The Orange County jurors who heard his case found he had committed the murders, but deadlocked on the question of his mental state during the sanity phase of the trial. The prosecution and defense agreed that the judge hearing the case should make the determination instead of a retrial. Superior Court Judge Robert Kneeland – who had occupied Rackuackas’ office as district attorney before he was appointed to the bench – found Allaway not guilty by reason of insanity. By law, people who are so delusional that they cannot understand the nature of their actions or that what they have done is wrong cannot be convicted – a legal principle dating back to an insane man’s attempt to assassinate the prime minster of Britain in 1843. Such people, however, can be committed to mental treatment as a danger to others, which Judge Kneeland did, predicting that Allaway likely never would be cured or released.
Allaway has been held and treated in secure state mental hospitals ever since. Despite the judge’s prediction, his doctors have proclaimed Allaway cured repeatedly during the last 15 of the 40 years he’s been locked away. They recommended that he be moved to a community setting. The Orange County district attorney’s determined opposition, both in court and through lobbying in Sacramento, has blocked Allaway’s release. He is legally entitled to try for freedom again every year, and his efforts to be freed have kept the case fresh in the minds of prosecutors, a constant, nagging fear.
Now the fear that history could repeat itself colored the Dekraai investigation. True, insanity is rarely invoked as a criminal defense and is even more rarely successful (used in less than 1 percent of cases and failing three out of four times it’s tried). And California law has changed since Allaway’s trial, making the insanity defense more difficult to mount. Yet, as strong as the factual, physical and eyewitness evidence seemed to be against Dekraai – just as it had been against Allaway – the possibility of an insanity defense haunted the case from the start.
Dekraai’s ex-wife had stated in court documents that he was bipolar. He had a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from his 2007 tugboat accident, when a metal cable killed a fellow crewman and nearly severed one of Dekraai’s legs. And in his first appearance in court, Dekraai’s lawyer complained that jailers had failed to provide the anti-psychotic drugs that had previously been prescribed for him. As courtroom spectators jeered and shouted, “I hate you!” at the defendant garbed in his mustard-yellow jail outfit, his attorney said he needed Topamax, a drug prescribed for seizures and migraines, and trazodone, used to treat depression. The lawyer also wanted Dekraai to have access to a spinal-cord stimulator he needed for the injuries that still plagued him from the 2007 accident.
Prosecutors saw this as laying the groundwork for an insanity defense intended to explain away Dekraai’s actions as the product of delusion and disease. Rackauckas said after the hearing that he would not be surprised by such a move. At his Seal Beach news conference, the district attorney already seemed to be anticipating this, urging the public not even to try to find an explanation for Dekraai’s actions.
“When good people see evil they try to reconcile why a person would do such an incomprehensible thing,” he said. “This mass murder … will never be understood.”
Rackauckas and his team were determined that Scott Dekraai would not go the same route as Edward Allaway. They wanted evidence to counter a possible insanity defense, clearing the path to a first-degree murder conviction and death sentence. They were certainly entitled, perhaps even obliged to do so. It was the way they went about gathering that evidence that would be the problem – not just for the Dekraai case, but for the entire Orange County justice system.
Mental illness does not in itself qualify as legal insanity, and prosecutors already had evidence about Dekraai’s mental state in hand. They could argue that his actions and words before, during and after the killings were the subject of rage, not delusion, and so distinct from the hallucinatory perceptions of a Charles Allaway. Dekraai’s words at the time of his arrest – “I know what I did” – could be interpreted as a refutation of the legal test for legal insanity. The expert witnesses – the legions of mind and brain physicians and scientists hired in such cases – would take it from there.
Based on national statistics, the odds were against a successful insanity plea. Dekraai and his legal team reached the same conclusion: He would never try to pursue an insanity defense. Instead, he would eventually plead guilty in May 2014 to eight counts of murder, leaving open only one question (for which his mental state would be only one factor to consider): Would he get life in prison without parole or a trip to death row?
In hindsight, then, all investigators and prosecutors had to do to ensure conviction and the speedy justice promised to the victims was to play by the rules and let the justice system take its course. From the point of view of Dekraai’s lawyer, there were two main rules that mattered. First, the authorities had to make sure all the relevant evidence in the case – especially evidence that helps Dekraai – got turned over to the defense. And the second rule was that Dekraai’s constitutional rights had to be protected, which meant he could not be interrogated in jail by the authorities – or by people working for them – once he had an attorney.
The authorities did not play by these rules.
One day after the district attorney’s stirring news conference, outside the view of the public and the TV cameras, sheriff’s deputies quietly moved Dekraai to a new location within the teeming Orange County Jail system: Cell No. 3 of Sector 17 in Module L, a psychiatric evaluation unit in the processing hub known as the Intake Release Center.
Informally, Tank 17 had become a “snitch tank,” a place where investigators hoped to glean incriminating statements from Dekraai. Rackauckas would later say it was a coincidence, but the first person to befriend this newcomer to the Darwinian culture of the corrections system was a professional informant working for police and prosecutors in an array of cases.
This Mexican Mafia gang leader had been busily informing on other inmates for some time, gathering evidence against them so he could reduce his own life sentence. Many cases got the secret snitch tank treatment over the years, and the Dekraai case followed the same basic script: Secretly, after Dekraai had retained his attorney, investigators began to tape as their informant coaxed Dekraai to open up. Then they failed to turn over key evidence to the defense for months. (Read Judge Goethals’ initial ruling)
The consequences of these tactics, once exposed by the dogged efforts of Dekraai’s attorney, would have the opposite effect than intended. Instead of making the Dekraai prosecution stronger, revelations about the snitch tank and the misconduct of law enforcement became the focus of the case, drawing such national news organizations as “60 Minutes” to town and eclipsing the story of the man who had killed so many. Then the prosecutions of other crimes were called into question – and in some cases were undone – by the unfolding scandal arising from how the justice system in Orange County used and covered up its system of jailhouse informants.
Meanwhile, the speedy justice Rackauckas had promised in that emotional news conference in Seal Beach has been delayed for years. As New Year’s 2016 arrives, the families and friends of the Salon Meritage victims remain in limbo and anguish, waiting for the case – and their lives – to move on.
They trusted me … They just kind of opened up.
Inside the Orange County Jail, the barracks and modules are crowded. Thick doors, concrete walls and floors, and ubiquitous security monitors create a forbidding environment. This is no accident. Prisoner movements are carefully controlled. Inmates wear color-coded wristbands to aid in segregating them into a kind of a tribal system based on risk and vulnerability – separating enemy and target, predator and prey. The goal is to limit violence.
First-time offenders, or “white banders,” typically are housed in large, open dormitories. Yellow-band inmates are repeat offenders, while members of orange- and red-band tribes are hardened career criminals, housed in high-security modules where they seldom leave their cells. An inmate earns a red band for attacking his captors.
A substantial number of inmates in lockup wear blue bands, signifying protective custody. This group includes gay inmates, high-profile or celebrity defendants, and prisoners known by other inmates to have worked previously as informants. All are likely prey in the violent criminal culture that rules the inner life of any lockup.
Scott Dekraai was two days shy of his 42nd birthday when he was transferred into Tank 17 with a blue band on his wrist and a target on his back, though he was not targeted for violence. He was a jackpot, a target for informants looking for an edge. Angry and classified as a “total sep” in protective custody – meaning he was to be totally separated from other prisoners for his and their protection – Dekraai could not even mingle in the large, open day rooms adjoining each double tier of cells. His status made him an outcast.
Still, the balding, 6-foot-1, 285-pound Dekraai fell into a fast and seemingly unlikely friendship with an inmate in the cell next to him. The two men exploited a well-used jailhouse communications device: talking back and forth through their sinks, letting the plumbing channel their voices.
Dekraai’s new friend was one Fernando Perez, a 30-year-old who was physically slight, just 5-foot-6 and unimposing, but nonetheless a rising figure in the leadership ranks of the feared Mexican Mafia gang. Perez admits to acts of violence that include making hit lists of people his gang should kill on sight and jumping on a man’s head, smashing it into the ground. “When you’re a gang member in prison, you have no choice,” he would later testify. “It’s either do or be done.”
But there was a third way: Working for the man. When he met Dekraai, Perez faced a third-strike charge of illegal possession of a firearm that could put him in prison for life. By then he was working virtually full time helping law enforcement collect information to bolster cases against dozens of defendants, from run-of-the-mill crooks to highly sought-after leaders of the Mexican Mafia. He took prolific and surprisingly literate notes daily, then passed them on to the officials who could make his life sentence go away.
So rather than shun or ignore the limping mass murderer in the next cell, Perez nurtured a rapport. He fetched water for Dekraai’s tea. He affectionately called him “buddy” and “brother.” And whatever else he said and did before the recordings began, Perez got Dekraai talking. He has a way of gaining inmates’ trust, he asserted much later during a hearing, when he insisted his technique boiled down to being a sympathetic listener who never stepped into unconstitutional territory by asking questions like a cop. “I don’t know what it is about me,” he said of his success in getting criminals to incriminate themselves. “They trusted me. … They just kind of opened up.”
On Oct. 18, 2011, one of the “special handling” deputies at the jail charged with monitoring information called the District Attorney’s Office. According to a slide presentation on the case prepared by prosecutors, the deputy said, “A guy in here (who has provided good info before) tells me that the Seal Beach shooter is bragging about the crime. … I think you’d be interested to hear what he has to say.”
The prosecutor who took the call reportedly replied, “What could it hurt to go take a listen?”
The next day, a week after Dekraai’s arrest, at 5:37 p.m., members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which operates the jail system, began recording the dialogue between Perez and Dekraai. An instruction in the inmate records, filed nearly a week after Dekraai’s arrival in Tank 17, said he was not to be moved regardless of medical requests without the permission of special-handling deputies, who manage the informant network. That allowed the recording of about 130 hours of conversation.
According to the D.A.’s office, prosecutors instructed Perez “not to ask defendant questions about his case.” Dekraai’s attorney would later assert that this instruction was not followed.
By having Dekraai’s own words on tape, prosecutors and investigators hoped to avoid any suspicion that Perez was fabricating testimony about what he had heard in order to earn a break on his own case. Prosecutors planned to play the tapes for jurors without them ever seeing Perez. The tapes would “speak for themselves.” Defense lawyers do not like this scenario. They like to have the frequently unsavory informant live and in person, questioning them about their gang activities and crimes, and what they hope to gain out of tricking and betraying other inmates. Perez could be asked, for example, how he earned his gang moniker: Wicked.
None of the contents of those recorded conversations have been publicly disclosed, although prosecutors have said in court that they capture Dekraai making comments that seem to “brag” about the killings he committed.
Jailhouse informants are part of an uncomfortable symbiosis: prisoners serving the very people who lock them up, risking brutal retribution – even death – in aid of the enemy. Some live like kings behind bars. They break the code of the streets by offering up dirt on other inmates who are sometimes their friends. Yet it happens daily.
Desperate to get out, snitches find their treachery can earn them extra privileges, better treatment, lesser charges or reduced sentences for their own crimes, though this is rarely made explicit. That way informants can testify that they were promised nothing in exchange for their assistance, making it harder for their credibility to be assailed on the witness stand.
Contrary to common belief and Hollywood portrayals, snitches are rarely prisoners who just happen to overhear a confession. Jailhouse informants apply for the role, as if seeking employment. If a would-be informant gets the job, he’s logged into an informant database. In Orange County, informants are supposed to be assigned to no fewer than two handlers each, who guide their contacts with other inmates and receive their information dumps in the form of notes and reports.
Each informant must sign documents stating he is not a member of law enforcement and has not been promised any rewards in exchange for evidence he might collect, according to Lt. William Baker, who supervises the informant program for the Sheriff’s Department’s Special Investigations Bureau.
Despite such disclaimers, some informants serve again and again over weeks or months, essentially functioning as spies for law enforcement inside the jailhouse. Sometimes a snitch helps strategize the intelligence gathering. Others become prolific correspondents, filing dozens or even hundreds of pages of confidential notes – scrawled records in which the petty jealousies and political squabbles between inmates and gangs play out like never-ending crime dramas.
Usually those records remain hidden from the public, even as they help further police investigations and bolster criminal prosecutions. The Sheriff’s Department keeps most of its informant operation well-concealed, citing its responsibility to safeguard informants and their families from retribution – and to preserve its only means of penetrating the inner circle of criminal organizations, such as the notorious prison gang called the Mexican Mafia.
No one will say, for example, how many informants are housed among the nearly 6,000 inmates in the county’s five jails. Prisoners suspect, rightly or wrongly, that the number is substantial.
“It’s like they’re breeding them here,” said David Neal, who was housed at the Intake Release Center where Dekraai and Perez had their encounters. Neal, who was defending himself against charges of carjacking and robbery, said of the snitches, “They are everywhere, dude.”
Snitches can deliver big results. Informants working out of the Orange County jail system played a critical role in two big gang busts by a federal-local task force that targeted the Mexican Mafia – a task force that employed Perez. The first bust, codenamed Operation Black Flag, broke three months before Dekraai arrived at the jail and led to the indictments of almost 100 alleged gang members, including two suspected kingpins fighting for control of the Mexican Mafia in Orange County. They were undone by the seizure of a unique form of jailhouse communication called the kite – thin strips of paper crinkled up tinier than cigarette butts and smuggled from cell to cell. The second big bust two years later, Operation Smokin’ Aces, led to the indictment of 129 more gang defendants on charges of murder, assault, extortion and racketeering.
Informants have always been around, for they can go places, hear things, and penetrate the inner sanctums of crime in a way no cop, uniformed or undercover, ever can. But in Orange County, snitches have become part of the fabric of the justice system, not merely haphazard and opportunistic rogue elements, but as an orderly, tracked, secret workforce prowling the jail with very specific targets in mind. Oscar Moriel, for example, started informing in the jails in 2009 and was a key figure in both the big Mexican Mafia operations. He wanted to get out of a life sentence for his own crimes. Over time, Moriel stopped being a mere conduit of information and started directing investigations. When targeting one murder defendant, Moriel suggested they be put in a disciplinary isolation unit next to each other so they could bond as fellow troublemakers. With another inmate in for murder, the snitch suggested phony paperwork be crafted that depicted Moriel as a problem inmate who had assaulted jail guards. When his target saw that, any suspicion that Moriel might be a snitch would evaporate, the informant suggested.
The motivations of informants vary. “Sometimes it’s revenge. Sometimes it’s somebody that’s scorned,” says Santa Ana Police Chief Carlos Rojas, whose department was part of the gang task force. “Sometimes they might want consideration based on criminal charges they’re facing. Sometimes it could be money. Any motivation that a human being could want … could be in that spectrum.”
The word “consideration” is key in the informant trade. Less than a promise and never formalized as a contract, it is nonetheless the coin of the realm in the snitch tank. An informant who delivers can expect extra consideration when his case is reviewed or cells are assigned or work details are organized. Consideration is, for lack of a better word, the jailhouse custom. The snitches know it will come, because without it, the informant army would desert. Yet the setup provides sufficient cover to allow both law enforcement and their informants to say that no promises were made and no deals were cut. Informants on the street often want police to give them money – sometimes thousands of dollars. In the jailhouse, some snitches command special consideration – cable TV, special deliveries of Del Taco – but the primary objective is always freedom.
That was the “consideration” that drove Fernando “Wicked” Perez to chat up Dekraai through the plumbing in the snitch tank.
It was the district attorney’s misfortune that the assistant public defender who inherited Dekraai as a client a few weeks after the Seal Beach shooting also happened to represent another notorious murder defendant facing trial in Orange County. To the attorney’s surprise, he found that the same prolific informant popped up in both cases.
And that’s when Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders began to dig.
Coming Thursday, Part II: Controversy grows, cases unravel
Contact the writer: firstname.lastname@example.org