SEAL BEACH - Stroll down Main Street's always busy shopping area, wander down the pier amid the beach crowd in wide-brimmed straw hats and flip-flops, stop in at the Bay City Center off Pacific Coast Highway and see the men and women come and go, and in most ways Seal Beach is as it has always been.

In other ways, it will never be the same.

Today residents will meet at Eisenhower Park for the first of several anniversary commemorations and vigils to remember a senseless act of violence that shook the town that likes to call itself "Mayberry by the Sea" to its underpinnings.

It was on Oct. 12, 2011, one year ago Friday, that a gunman burst into the popular Salon Meritage and killed eight people, including employees and customers, in the most deadly shooting rampage in Orange County history.

A large crowd gathers in front of Salon Meritage for a candlelight vigil in memory of the victims of Wednesdays shooting in Seal Beach that left eight
A large crowd gathers in front of Salon Meritage for a candlelight vigil in memory of the victims of Wednesdays shooting in Seal Beach that left eight dead. October 2011 file photo. (Scott Varley / Staff Photographer)

Those killed were 48-year-old Michelle Fournier, a salon employee and the alleged gunman's ex-wife who had been in a child custody fight; the salon's owner, Randy Lee Fannin, 62; Victoria Ann Buzzo, 54; Lucia Bernice Kondas, 65; Laura Lee Elody, 46; Christy Lynn Wilson, 47; Michele Daschbach Fast, 47; and David Caouette, 64. The lone gunshot survivor, Harriet "Hattie" Stretz, 73, of Los Alamitos was getting her hair done by her daughter, Elody, when both women were shot.

Scott Dekraai has been arrested and charged with eight murders and one attempted murder. The lengthy legal process is ongoing, and the Orange County District Attorney's Office is seeking the death penalty.


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In addition to taking eight lives, shattering eight families and devastating countless friends of the slain, the shooting also severely tested this oceanside hamlet and left it with memories and scars that are still healing.

Grieving process

As the anniversary date approaches, emotions have naturally returned to the surface, particularly for those most closely affected.

Criswell Signature Salon, a next-door neighbor to Salon Meritage, 500 Pacific Coast Highway, is close to the epicenter of the tragedy. It is where five former employees of Meritage have set up work stations while they await the planned reopening of the salon.

"This week there's a lot of heaviness," owner Kimberly Criswell said.

At the same time, she added, "There's been a lot of bonding and support.

"Healing is a process, and for some it may be lifelong."

At St. Anne's Parish, where several victims were congregants, Monsignor Michael Heher says he still talks about the shootings from time to time in his homilies.

About the continuing grieving, he said, "A lot depends on how close you were to those who died."

Heher said he had a recent conversation with a brother of one of the victims who said in his family some members were ready to move on, while others still had work to do.

The Rev. Josh Reeves, senior pastor at the Center for Spiritual Living, which is just across the street from Salon Meritage, says grieving and recovery are unique to each person.

"You have to accept yourself where you are (in the grieving process,)" he said.

As one moves away from the salon and the day of the shooting, the emotions are more attenuated.

"People have gone back to their lives, but they hold a consciousness of healing and care," Reeves said.

"They still look each other in the eyes, but they hold that look for a second longer."

While many have moved on in the year since the shooting, it still remains, at least in some form, in the collective consciousness of the community.

City Councilman Gordon Shanks said that in most ways the city is moving on and putting the memories behind it, although this week is different.

"This is not one of those things you want to be constantly reminded of. I think most people will go to the memorial, but this is not something you want the city to be remembered for," Shanks said.

Heher said one can never fully put such a tragedy completely in the past, but one must "step forward into the life you're given."

City Councilman David Sloan said many in the community have dealt with their grief by trying to properly remember the slain.

"One thing that has kept people occupied is working on a (permanent) memorial," Sloan said, noting that details remain to be worked out on what it will look like and were it will be installed. 

Around the salon

A year after the tragedy, there are still visible signs of the shooting in the Bay City Center shopping complex.

The area remains active. The building where Salon Meritage is located is also home to a handful of other salons and health beauty shops, including one for pets, plus several eateries and assorted small businesses.

It is an area where well-heeled and well-coifed women gather. The businesses cater to their vanity and dish the latest gossip, to be sure, but just as important they provide personal relationships and a sense of community and support.

So in that sense, regardless of the proximity of other beauty shops, the loss of Salon Meritage leaves a hole both physically and psychically.

Chain-link fencing surrounds the salon, which sits in a corner unit. Now just a husk of its former self, the salon is being remodeled and, according to a worker who didn't give his name, it should be completed within a month to five weeks.

Inside the salon, boxed furniture is stacked against walls. Just inside the front door is a circular piece of tile in-laid into the wood flooring with the decorative "M" that was the salon's logo, a reminder of what was and what will be.

Sandi Fannin, the widow of victim Randy Fannin, has said she plans to reopen the salon with Irma Acosta, another hairstylist and friend who is buying the business, although the exact date still remains undetermined.

For many, the reopening will be an important milestone both for the community and the former employees who will return to the salon.

"It gives (the employees) something to look forward to. I think it's courageous and takes fortitude and support," Criswell said. "I think those who lost their lives are looking on and saying, `Yes, yes, don't let (the gunman) have the final word.' I'm glad they're doing it. Irma (Acosta) said she couldn't see it go dark. In the community I hear a lot of backing and support for having life back in there."

Criswell said that several of the former employees have taken clients and guests over to the construction site to provide sneak peaks at the progress.

"It's going to be absolutely beautiful," Criswell said.

"Some people, to move on, they need to know that the person who did the killing didn't win," Heher said.

Don Shoemaker, the pastor emeritus at Grace Community Church and a retired Seal Beach Police Department chaplain who counseled many community members after the shooting, said the return of the salon is a sign of resiliency.

"We've been victimized once, and we do not want to be victimized again. It shows a sense of resilience of determination," Shoemaker said. "It doesn't sugarcoat what happened, it shows that we will move forward and continue to support one another because that is what we've always done."

Sloan said every time he drives past the Salon he thinks of the tragedy but that seeing the business up and running again will help many, like him, feel some sense of closure.

Coming back stronger

For many there will always be a coda to the city's name: Seal Beach, where something unimaginable happened. But members of the community and civic and faith leaders insist they won't let the tragedy define their city.

"We (as a community) can't do anything to minimize the suffering and the awfulness of what happened," Shoemaker said. "But if you are trying to look for a silver lining, the tragedy shows how the community pulled together and how we can be supportive of one another. How the sense of grief and loss is shared by everyone."

"I think we're a closer community," Heher said, adding that for many, it underscores how fragile and precious life is.

"The city came together like a small town does," said the Rev. Tia Wildermuth of United Methodist Church of Seal Beach. "It was a horrible tragedy, but it is not reflective of us."

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the outpouring of support and grief was a revelation to many. Days after the shooting, hundreds of residents showed up for a hastily arranged vigil, spurred mostly by youth.

One of the speakers that night was Jake Tellkamp, a 19-year-old college student from Seal Beach.

"This tragedy doesn't define us," Jake Tellkamp said, as he struggled to hold back the tears. "This moment here defines us."

"You saw `Mayberry by the Sea' last night," City Councilwoman Ellery Deaton said after the vigil.

Criswell said that in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, her shop was as much a place for emotional triage as hair-cutting.

"People were wandering around not sure what to do," she said. "So we'd invite them in just of have a drink and talk."

Almost organically, Criswell said people brought by bottled water and food and reached out unbidden to one another.

"There was a lot of support, a lot of tears," she said. "There were many levels of that."

"Wounds can become scars we wear with pride," Reeves said. "Just because of the way the community came together in such a positive way."

greg.mellen@presstelegram.com, 562-714-2093, twitter.com/gregmellen

If you go

What: Remembrance for the one-year anniversary of the Salon Meritage shooting

When: 7 p.m. Thursday night

Where: Eisenhower Park,

800 Ocean Blvd., Seal Beach