A former tugboat captain who carried out Orange County’s worst mass shooting was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison Friday for killing eight people at a Seal Beach salon in 2011.
The sentencing of Scott Evans Dekraai, 47, marked an emotional end to a case that has roiled the county’s criminal justice system amid allegations that authorities used a secret network of jailhouse informants to violate inmates’ constitutional rights.
The so-called snitch scandal led Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals last month to block prosecutors from pursuing the death penalty against Dekraai, ruling that the county’s mishandling of information regarding informants would prevent a fair trial. The decision, which followed lengthy hearings that included testimony from Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, was criticized by law enforcement leaders, who said Dekraai deserves to be executed.
“The criminal justice system here in Orange County has largely failed you,” Goethals said to the victims’ relatives, many of whom were in court Friday. “You deserve better.”
On Oct. 12, 2011, Dekraai walked into the Salon Meritage and opened fire, killing his ex-wife, Michelle Fournier, 48, along with salon owner Randy Fannin, 62; Lucia Kondas, 65; Michele Fast, 47; Victoria Buzzo, 54; Laura Elody, 46; Christy Wilson, 47; and David Caouette, 64, who was shot outside in his car.
“The gates of hell flew open and you emerged as the face of evil,” Goethals said to Dekraai while handing down the sentence.
Goethals sentenced Dekraai to eight consecutive life sentences in state prison, one for each murder, without the possibility of parole. The judge told the family members that Dekraai will almost certainly spend all of his life in a maximum security prison “in some forgotten corner of California.”
“He's going to spend it in a small, concrete cell,” he said. “And that's exactly what he deserves.”
The victims' relatives — themselves a painful family of sorts — gathered outside Goethals’ courtroom before Friday’s hearing, where they hugged and reflected on the fact that Friday would finally end the years-long case.
“Can you believe it's been six years?” a man asked. Two women shook their heads.
An older woman dabbed at her eyes with tissues. Another victim's family member expressed her exhaustion with the media coverage. Many people wore T-shirts honoring their loved ones, which read: “Lucia Bringer of Light,” “Love is louder Team Laura,” and “In Loving Memory Christy Wilson.”
Once inside the courtroom, many of the victims’ loved ones read impact statements, unleashing their anger toward the gunman one final time.
Paul Wilson, Christy's husband, spoke softly and asked Dekraai to turn and look at him.
“He made sure he killed cowardly and without remorse,” Wilson said, adding that Dekraai knew him and his family personally.
“I'm sorry, Paul,” Dekraai said.
Victims' family members whimpered in the audience. A woman shouted: “Shut up!” Another said, “My God!”
“I can only hope that your years in prison are rough,” Wilson said. “I hope that you find hatred staring back at you… you deserve nothing.”
Several relatives of Dekraai’s victims have expressed frustration with the delays in the case, with some blasting Hutchens and Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas for their decision to use informants in a straight-forward case and ensnaring them in the widening scandal.
“It’s been six years for nothing. We couldn’t control the murder. We couldn’t stop that. We couldn’t stop this,” Butch Fournier, whose sister Michelle was Dekraai’s ex-wife, told The Times last month. “They caused us pain and suffering that was unnecessary. It was a cut-and-dry case.”
Dekraai pleaded guilty to the salon murders in 2014. But the penalty phase of his trial remained in limbo for years after evidence surfaced that sheriff’s deputies housed a longtime informant near him in the hopes of extracting evidence that could lead to a death sentence.
That discovery set off a chain of events that led Goethals and an appellate court to rule that the Sheriff’s Department was running a “sophisticated” jailhouse informant network in order to coax confessions out of people held in the county’s jail system.
Dekraai’s attorney, Orange County Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, has contended that jailhouse informants and their handlers violated the rights of inmates for years by coaxing information from defendants who are represented by lawyers.
The district attorney’s office and Sheriff’s Department denied running a coordinated informant operation. In Dekraai’s case, prosecutors argued it was a coincidence that Fernando Perez, a reputed Mexican Mafia shot caller who had cooperated with law enforcement in the past, wound up housed near Dekraai.
Perez was facing 40 years to life in prison for a weapons charge but ultimately received a reduced sentence and could be freed in less than seven years.
In a statement issued Friday, the district attorney’s office reiterated its opposition to Goethals’ decision to spare Dekraai from the death penalty because of the snitch scandal.
“The [Orange County district attorney’s office] fought for the death penalty because it is hard to fathom how anyone who has heard Dekraai’s chilling recorded confession immediately following his arrest would think that this evil person should get anything less than the death penalty,” the statement read.
Last month, Goethals sharply criticized the conduct of sheriff’s officials and prosecutors. Time and time again, he said, the Sheriff’s Department failed to comply with his orders to turn over information about the use of informants in the county jail.
“The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has consistently responded to this court’s lawful orders with such indolence and obfuscation that this court has lost confidence that it can ever secure compliance from the prosecution team,” Goethals wrote in his 19-page decision.
If not for missteps by prosecutors and sheriff’s officials, Goethals wrote, Dekraai “would likely today be living alongside other convicted killers on California’s Death Row.”
The Sheriff’s Department disagreed, saying in a statement that the “facts in this case clearly supported a death penalty verdict.”
“The decision to remove the death penalty rests at the feet of Judge Goethals and nobody else,” the department said.
For some victims, the sentencing hearing marked another moment for them to wonder how their loved ones wound up in the middle of Dekraai’s rampage. Fast’s brother, Rooney Daschbach, addressed the court, describing his sister as a simple woman — the type of person who only got her haircut twice a year.
He said he couldn’t help but think that if her appointment had been 15 minutes earlier or later that day, he wouldn't have been in court Friday, staring at her killer.
Daschbach helped read a letter from Fast’s sister, Laura, who wondered about the last moments of Michele’s life.
“What was she thinking as she took cover?” she wrote. “I have prayed she was one of the first victims.”
The death, her sister wrote, turned their otherwise healthy elderly father into “a shell of himself” — he died four months later of “a broken heart.”
“He gave up on life,” she wrote. “His heart gave up on him.”
Times staff writer Jack Leonard contributed to this report.