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Dec. 31, 2015 – Updated 8:59 a.m.

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. Illustrations were drawn by Jeff Goertzen.

Read more at the Register’s ‘Inside the Snitch Tank’ site

Prologue

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.

Chapter 1

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 in 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.

Chapter 2

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.

Chapter 3

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.”

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