| Seal Beach shooting anniversary: Vigil honors memory of victims
SEAL BEACH - One year ago today, a 41-year-old Huntington Beach man allegedly walked into a small Seal Beach beauty salon armed with several guns and opened fire.
Scott Evans Dekraai first shot his ex-wife, Michelle Fournier, and then her friend and co-worker Christy Lynn Wilson, according to witnesses and grand jury transcripts.
Salon owner Randy Fannin tried to intervene, to coax the gunman outside to talk, and became the third victim.
Then Dekraai methodically worked his way through the business that sits just off Pacific Coast Highway at Fifth Street, shooting five more people: employees Victoria Buzzo, 54; Michele Daschback Fast, 47; and Laura Webb, 46; and customers Bernice Kondas, 65; and Harriet "Hattie" Stretz, 73.
Stretz, of Los Alamitos, survived her serious injuries, while several others in the salon avoided the gunfire by ducking for cover, hiding in closets and small rooms, and even lying on the floor among the dead and dying.
As Dekraai slowly and calmly walked out of the shop, with people running and screaming in all directions, he saw David Caouette, 64, sitting in his Range Rover.
Dekraai then got into his truck and drove slowly out of the parking lot as people rushed to the crime scene, according to court documents.
The crime - which killed eight, leaving Stretz as the lone gunshot victim to survive - was the deadliest mass shooting in Orange County history, although Dekraai pleaded not guilty. Word of the tragedy spread to media outlets around the world.
The families of the victims and others affected by the shooting have dealt with their grief in different ways.
The shooting spurred some to action, and it brought families and the community together, even as some families were torn apart. The tragedy even led to an unexpected love story and marriage.
Paul Wilson, whose wife Christy Lynn Wilson was killed in the attack, took a solution-oriented approach.
Following the shooting, he began a movement to control gun access for those who are involved in child custody battles. The announcement was met with a negative reaction from some gun rights advocates, but he wasn't surprised, he said.
"I understand, I do," Wilson said in a recent interview.
Facing the pain
Wilson was just one of many family, close friends and salon employees who rushed to the salon on the day of the shooting after they heard the news.
In the days that followed, thousands of Seal Beach residents, and people from many surrounding communities, would be drawn to the site, leaving rows of flowers, candles, stuffed toys and handwritten notes.
Children who attended nearby schools with the victims' children scrawled messages of hope on butcher paper and in chalk on the brick facade outside the business. Area churches posted signs offering an open door around the clock to pray, to meditate or just to talk.
In the days that followed, area businesses began to hold fundraisers to help the families with funeral expenses. The amount of support was so great that city officials established an official fund overseen by a committee.
And as people pulled together to process their anger, shock and grief, details about Dekraai emerged.
Friends and relatives of Fournier, and her divorce attorney, said she lived in fear of her former husband, with whom she had been embroiled in a bitter custody battle over their son, Dominic, who is now 9.
Divorce records show Dekraai had accused Fournier of being an unfit parent, and she countered by saying his mental state had deteriorated following the loss of a leg in a tugboat accident that killed one of his co-workers. He was also diagnosed as bipolar and required heavy medication, according to court documents.
The couple was in an Orange County Family Court just the day before, with Dekraai's claims being rejected, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said.
When Dekraai, armed and wearing a bullet-proof vest under his clothes, walked up to Fournier shortly after 1 p.m. as she worked on Wilson's hair, he said, "This is what you wanted," according to the grand jury transcripts.
It wasn't what Fournier wanted, but it was what she had feared, family and friends said.
"He had been there before and been a problem," Wilson said. "No one trusted him."
Wilson said the shop was an amazing place to work for everyone and that the group was extremely close-knit, but his wife and Fournier had been the best of friends.
The two women met at Lakewood High School. They went on double dates, they shared their hopes and dreams for the future and shared life's struggles.
Losing his wife - whom he began dating when he was 21 - was like losing part of himself. He had to take off from work for part of the past year to attend court hearings - "I will always go," he said - and to focus on his children and himself as they worked to cope with the pain.
He is happy to note that their youngest son graduated from high school this year and was recruited to play baseball at a school in Iowa. Their daughter has a 3-year-old daughter of her own who takes much of her focus, and their oldest son is dedicated to a good job.
But when Wilson talks about that day, his voice fills with tension. He, like so many family members and friends of the victims, refuses to call Dekraai by his name; most prefer the word "coward."
They are present for every court hearing, even those that last less than five minutes. Many have also given feedback or worked with the committee put together by the Seal Beach City Council to plan the permanent memorial tribute and the candlelight vigil that was held Thursday.
Some, however, have retreated from anything to do with the attack, though they all seem to keep track of one another. Bonds that formed in the salon before the tragedy have grown well beyond those killed and injured that day.
Chelsea Huff, Fournier's 25-year-old daughter and the stepsister of Dominic, said she was transformed overnight into a single mother.
Her stepbrother has lived with her, her father and her stepmom in Los Alamitos since the day he was pulled out of his school's afternoon day-care program and told his mom had been killed and his father had been arrested, effectively leaving him an orphan.
This year Dominic started third grade at McGaugh Elementary School, where he loves sports and enjoys his same friends, she said.
Huff said the enormity of fighting to become his legal guardian - a title she won in court this summer despite Dekraai's protests - was staggering. But her face brightens when she describes Dominic as a largely happy little boy, one well-loved and supported by his family, including his and Huff's grandfather and grandmother in New York, where the little boy got to spend some of his summer vacation.
"He's such a great kid," she said. "It's hard for me to get too down with this little bundle of joy constantly bouncing around."
Love from tragedy
Paul Caoutte, the son of David Caouette, moved from Pismo Beach to Seal Beach to be nearer his mother and became involved in the city committee creating a permanent memorial.
Even romance bloomed in the past year with a friend of the victims and fellow stylist, Tammy Hetzel, meeting her bridegroom Doug Childers at a funeral for one of the victims.
Childers was in a construction crew just a few feet from the salon and on a lunch break when they heard the shots and ran into the business. The trained Marine told the grand jury Dekraai actually stopped and pointed his gun at him, but did not pull the trigger.
"There hasn't been a day that's gone by that I haven't thought of that day," Childers said.
The pair wed Sept. 29, playing the song, "We Found Love in a Hopeless Place" by Rihanna at the wedding, which was held near the Seal Beach Pier and about 50 yards from where the candlelight vigil was held Thursday. They had no idea it would be so close to one of the proposed memorial sites when they picked the spot months earlier.
"The location it's in, it feels like we've got those who were lost with us," Childers said last week.
Gun control movement
Many other family members are fighting back.
Wilson has a name for his efforts to pass legislation that would temporarily remove guns from the possession of people embroiled in child-custody disputes - "Christy's Law," after his wife who was killed at the salon.
His proposed legislation seeks to prohibit the purchase of firearms by those engaged in dissolution and child custody disputes, to prohibit possession of guns while engaged in such disputes and to require gun owners to surrender firearms while engaged in the disputes.
He and several other family members of victims, such as Huff and Fournier's brothers, are also outspoken supporters of victims' rights in the criminal court system, where they have expressed disgust at the number of rights afforded to accused criminals while victims and their loved ones are left with little concern or protection.
After the shooting, the grieving widower and dad began to research violence and family court issues, learning that in the United States alone during the previous three years more than 100 people were killed in custody disputes.
He talked to elected officials, police chiefs and sheriffs throughout the state, learning that the second leading cause of death and/or injury to officers stems from custody disputes.
Wilson also learned that though someone who is diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder and is medicated can't easily purchase guns, and that person may be ordered to surrender guns, there are few, if any, resources in enforcing such regulations.
"Sure, he can't buy something now, but there is nothing in place to deal with the 10 guns he bought 15 years ago, 15 years before he lost his leg, lost his job, lost his wife, lost his family," Wilson said, referring to Dekraai's history.
Christy's Law, he said, isn't designed to completely remove the right to bear arms, though he notes the country is in a much different place today than when that amendment was written.
"Not even everyone in a divorce would be affected," he said. "Only those in disputes would have to turn their guns over temporarily."
"We're working to protect the community, spouses, officers and children," Wilson said. "There has to be something in place to ensure that person doesn't have access to deadly weapons, and it has to be in place and effective before he goes into that salon and changes everyones' lives forever."
Salon Meritage shooting timeline
Oct. 12, 2011 - Shortly after 1p.m., Scott Evans Dekraai storms the Salon Meritage in Seal Beach, shooting nine people and killing eight, according to court documents. Authorities say the deadly rampage was spurred by a contentious custody dispute with his ex-wife, Michelle Marie Fournier, 48, who was one of the victims. Dekraai is arrested by Seal Beach police officers without incident just blocks away from the crime scene.
Oct. 14, 2011 - Dekraai has his first court appearance after prosecutors file eight counts of murder and one count of attempted murder in the worst massshooting in Orange County history. Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas vows to seek the death penalty as tearful and enraged relatives of the victims fill a Santa Ana Courtroom to see the suspect in his first public appearance.
Oct. 25, 2011 - The Public Defender's Office is assigned to take over Dekraai's case.
Nov. 7, 2011 - Families of victims Christy Lynn Wilson and Michelle Fournier file wrongful death suits against Dekraai.
Nov. 29, 2011 - Dekraai enters a notguilty plea to the charges.
Jan. 16, 2012 - The Salon Meritage Victims Trust, which officially stopped gathering money in December, announces it has raised more than $400,000 for the families and survivors. The funds, which were overseen by a committee of city staff and community leaders, will be distributed in a three-tier system, with those most affected by the tragedy composing the first tier, such as the families who lost someone, the lone gunshot survivor and Dominic, the son of Dekraai and Fournier. The second tier are survivors who were trapped in the salon who weren't hit by gunfire. Tier three consists of salon employees and direct witnesses.
Jan. 17, 2012 - A grand jury indicts Dekraai on eight counts of murder and one count of attempted murder in the special circumstance case. The indictment speeds the trial process by eliminating the need for a preliminary hearing. Delays, nonetheless, are declared as the defense seeks more time to prepare for the complicated case.
May 3, 2012 - The transcripts from the grand jury indictment are released, detailing the horror that took place from eyewitness accounts. However, 29 pages of the transcripts remain under court-ordered seal.
July 27, 2012 - An Orange County Superior Family Court judge declares Chelsea Huff, 25, of Los Alamitos the legal guardian of her stepbrother, Dominic. Huff agrees to share guardianship of Dominic with the boy's maternal grandparents, but DeKraai's mother is still seeking visitation rights
Sept. 20, 2012 - A city committee formed in January to design a permanent memorial visits a potential site at First Street Beach, announces it is considering two sites for a permanent memorial - Eisenhower Park, a small greenbelt encompassing 1.4 acres next to the pier, or the First Street beach area.
Sept. 29, 2012 - Tammy Hetzel and Doug Childers get married on the beach. The couple, she a stylist who once worked at the salon and he one of several construction workers who ran into the salon after hearing the shots, met while attending a victim's funeral.
Oct. 9, 2012 - Sandra "Sandi" Fannin, widow of the slain salon owner, files a civil suit seeking compensation from Employers Mutual Casualty Co., the insurance company she and her husband paid for coverage for loss of business. In the 11-page civil complaint, Fannin says the company grudgingly gave her less than $30,000 when her actual business loss was $50,000 to $70,000. She also seeks unspecified damages for emotional distress due to the harsh treatment she says she received from the insurer.
Oct. 11, 2012 - Commemorating the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, a remembrance vigil hosted by the city takes place at the Seal Beach Pier.
Mid-November 2012 - Salon Meritage, currently being renovated, is expected to open under new ownership.
March 25, 2013 - Scheduled trial date for Dekraai, though it is expected to be postponed when the defendant appears for a status hearing next week.
- Tracy Manzer
Salon Meritage shooting victim profiles
Victoria Ann Buzzo
About her: Laguna Beach resident Buzzo, 54, was a stylist at Salon Meritage who one friend said "had an incredible sense of humor and beautiful eyes and face," and "an infectious laugh, like a cackle."
About him: Seal Beach resident Caouette, 64, was a bystander who was shot in the parking lot outside the salon while in his vehicle. Caouette was a member of the Southern California Land Rover Club and an off-road enthusiast.
Laura Lee Elody
About her: Huntington Beach resident Elody, 46, a salon employee, had gotten married just before the shooting and many people knew her as Laura Webb. She was in the salon doing the hair of her mother, 73-year-old Hattie Stretz, who was the sole gunshot survivor.
Randy Lee Fannin
About him: Murrieta resident Fannin, 62, was the owner of the salon with his wife, Sandi, who was in the shop during the shooting but survived. He was a father and grandfather who proudly talked about his family, according to one acquaintance.
Michele Daschbach Fast
About her: A salon employee, Seal Beach resident Fast, 47, was described as a devoted soccer mom who rarely missed her daughter Lisa's games with the Beach Futbol Club in Long Beach. Husband Patrick Fast was a team manager.
Michelle Marie Fournier
About her: Fournier, 48, a salon employee, is the ex-wife of killing suspect Scott Dekraai. A graduate of Lakewood High School and mother of three, the Los Alamitos resident was described as cheerful, beautiful and outgoing.
Lucia Bernice Kondas
About her: A customer at the salon, Kondas, 65, was an administrator at the Orange County Health Care Agency, Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services before her retirement 10 years earlier. The Huntington Beach resident was described as "warm yet brilliant" by a friend.
Christy Lynn Wilson
About her: Wilson, 47, was a salon employee and Lakewood High School graduate. Described as a creative artist and athlete, the Cerritos resident was survived by her husband, Paul Wilson, and three children.