A disgruntled father embroiled in a custody dispute with his ex-wife pleaded guilty Friday to murdering her and seven others in a shooting rampage at a California hair salon.
Scott Dekraai, a 44-year-old former tugboat operator, looked straight at the judge as he entered his pleas to eight counts of murder and one count of attempted murder with special circumstances and enhancements in a courtroom packed with the tearful relatives of his victims.
“After today you will not be an alleged killer anymore, you are going to be a convicted murderer,” Judge Thomas M. Goethals told Dekraai.
Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for Dekraai, who had been locked in a bitter custody dispute with ex-wife Michelle Fournier over their 8-year-old son when he entered Salon Meritage in Seal Beach in October 2011 wearing a bulletproof vest and armed with three weapons.
Dekraai shot and killed Fournier before turning his guns on the salon owner, stylists and customers. On his way out, he killed a man who was sitting in his car in the parking lot. Police arrested Dekraai within minutes of the rampage, which left eight dead and one wounded.
“‘I know what I did,'” he told an arresting officer, according to a police affidavit.
Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders said Dekraai wanted to enter the plea to spare the victims a lengthy trial while he continues to fight a potential death sentence.
On Friday, relatives dabbed their eyes and cried quietly in the courtroom as the judge read the names of the victims.
“It’s just a real slap of reality,” Paul Wilson, whose wife was killed in the attack, said after the hearing.
Wilson also said he didn’t buy the reason Dekraai gave for entering the plea and suspected it had more to do with strategy than remorse.
“This is not a compassionate man, or I wouldn’t be standing here today,” Wilson told reporters.
After the hearing, Sanders said that Dekraai had been talking about changing his plea for some time, and he was relieved to have done so.
“He’s not doing this for a tactical reason,” Sanders said. “He believes this is absolutely the right thing to do.”
In his two decades working at the Orange County public defender’s office, Sanders said he has never had a capital murder defendant plead guilty.
The case has long focused on whether Dekraai should be sentenced to life in prison or death, with victims’ relatives divided over his fate.
Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said his office would continue to seek death for Dekraai to honor the wishes of some of the victims’ relatives and his responsibility to county residents.
“This is a horrendous case. This is a multiple-murder case against innocent and defenseless victims, and the only thing that might even approach justice in a case like this is for us to seek the death penalty,” he said.
Some victims’ relatives said they hope to witness Dekraai’s execution someday. Others said they’d rather see him suffer out his life in prison than be put quietly to sleep – a stark contrast to the violent death their loved ones faced.
“I’d like him to find a more eye-for-an-eye sort of demise in general population,” said Bethany Webb, whose sister was killed and whose mother was the sole survivor of the attack. “He’s a coward. Those guys are going to eat him up.”
Dekraai, who was injured in a boating accident in 2007, is due back in court on Monday for a hearing underway on allegations by Sanders that authorities misused jailhouse informants in violation of Dekraai’s constitutional rights, and tried to conceal related evidence.
Sanders has asked Goethals to recuse the district attorney’s office and remove the death penalty as an option in the case over the allegations, which prosecutors have denied.
Goethals said he expects to rule on the allegations in about four to six weeks. If he doesn’t strike the death penalty, a penalty phase to determine whether Dekraai ought to face a life in prison or a death sentence would follow.
In the courtroom Friday, some relatives wore T-shirts and buttons printed with the names and faces of the victims or with a heart-shaped logo designed to unite the seaside community in the wake of the tragedy.
About a year after the killings, the salon reopened, and six of the original employees returned to work.
But even as the community convalesces and the court proceedings amble on, victims’ relatives struggle with the loss. Craig Burke, Fournier’s brother, points to a giant heart tattooed on his chest to memorialize his sister.
“People say you end this court thing, it is going to change everything. It’s not going to change nothing,” Burke said. “You’re going to live with this your whole life.”