A Slaughter Reimagined

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0612SealBeach

In the Internet confabulation that followed last fall’s Seal Beach salon rampage, Scott Dekraai wasn’t just the man charged in Orange County’s deadliest mass shooting. He became a victim, a symptom—even a martyr.

Brian Davies was jogging in Seal Beach shortly before 1:30 p.m. on Oct. 12, 2011, when he heard sirens.

Davies, a plastic surgeon and medical devices entrepreneur who had recently moved to Orange County with his wife, turned the corner and saw police cars and emergency vehicles massed along Fifth Street, and an armed contingent of law enforcement swarming around the front of Salon Meritage.

He stopped and watched, transfixed, as medical technicians brought a succession of bodies out of the small hair salon. By chance, Davies had happened on the scene of the most horrific mass murder in county history. Minutes before, according to police and prosecutors, 41-year-old Huntington Beach resident Scott Evans Dekraai had pulled up in his white Toyota Tundra pickup. Wearing a bulletproof vest and armed with a 9mm Springfield, a Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum, and a Heckler & Koch .45, Dekraai entered the shop where his 48-year-old former wife, Michelle Marie Fournier, was working, and then, investigators say, methodically executed those in his path with gunshots to the chest and head. Seven of the eight people who were shot, including Fournier, would die. Then, police say, Dekraai walked back out to the lot and shot into a parked Range Rover, killing the 64-year-old driver, before leaving the scene.

When Davies saw the carnage, the good Samaritan in him felt the urge to step forward. “I’m a surgeon and I’ve worked in emergency rooms, and I’ve treated gunshot victims before,” he explains. “But then, I saw the people coming out and I could just tell they were dead.” So Davies defaulted to a reality-coping mode that’s becoming increasingly common in this continuously connected age of smart phones and Internet social media: He shot video of the scene with his iPhone, and quickly posted it to YouTube.

 

After Davies uploaded his video, he pretty much forgot about it. “It was the first time that I’d put anything up on YouTube,” he recalls, explaining that he mostly wanted to make the video available to a Los Angeles Times reporter at the scene who’d asked what he’d witnessed, and to his college-aged children in other parts of the country. But he also felt the urge to return the next day to shoot more video, meticulously documenting the growing mound of flowers and other items left by mourners, some of whom consoled one another arm-in-arm in front of the shop.

“I saw what happened, and I just thought I should take pictures,” he says. “It was touching. This is a small community, and some of the people involved had lost friends.”

Unknown to him, YouTube denizens near and far were watching his clips and posting comments in which they offered their interpretations of the event, and arguing vehemently with one another about what they believed had taken place.

Dekraai was involved in a custody dispute with his former wife, and some considered him a victim. “The shooter was the dumped hubby who was trying to see his kids … but the ex-wife along with her lawyers and her girlfriends pushed this guy over the edge,” a commenter calling himself “ChiroQuacker” wrote. “We know what you [expletives] are doing to fathers in corrupt family courts,” another wrote. “The system treat [sic] men in divorce court like garbage … and this [expletive] took this guy to the edge,” a woman wrote.

Those assertions are wrong, of course; Dekraai shared custody of his son, and actually was allotted slightly more time with him than his ex. But in the electronic hive mind of the Internet, where raw emotion unmitigated by facts can rage like a contagion, such distinctions matter little. Elsewhere in cyberspace, others hatched similarly strange theories—that Dekraai is a member of a radical fathers’ rights underground, a member of a right-wing militia, or a Tea Party activist gone rogue. Those stories, it turns out, aren’t true either.

But this is the way we live now, in the age of YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and blogs. It’s a realm in which mass murder can be transformed into a mass-participation event, a sort of grisly flash mob in which viewers from all over the world converge to interpret what transpired. In doing so, the vicarious electronic participants transform a real-life killing spree into a tabula rasa on which they project their own beliefs, ideologies, agendas, and prejudices. As in the classic 1950 Akira Kurosawa film “Rashomon,” multiple versions of what happened in Seal Beach emerged—misinformation and partial truths built from the same raw material, but so different that they almost seem based on separate, unrelated events. Unlike the film, in which any of the competing versions could be true, the Seal Beach shooting stories often are based on problematic assumptions.

What follows is not the story of what took place on that awful day in October, but of the alternate-universe stories spawned by the tragedy.

 

To understand how much has changed, it’s helpful to recall what happened in 1976, when seven people were killed at the Cal State Fullerton library by university custodian Edward Allaway, a rifle-wielding paranoid schizophrenic who came unhinged after breaking up with his wife. The Internet as we know it didn’t exist, and so the public was limited to TV news segments and articles in The Orange County Register, the Los Angeles Times, and wire-service reports. Except perhaps for calling in to a radio show, there wasn’t a way for them to participate.

Fast forward to last October, when an Orange County Fire Authority captain tweeted, within minutes of the Seal Beach shooting, that emergency crews were responding to what appeared to be a mass murder. According to the Internet social media search engine Topsy, it was the first of roughly 34,000 tweets containing “Seal Beach” in the 14-day period that immediately followed the shooting—some by the news media or law enforcement, but many by people who took no part in the event. Some messages came from celebrities, such as Los Angeles Lakers star Pau Gasol, who expressed his sympathy for the victims’ families. Other tweets were by the marginally famous. Jimmy Bennett, a teenage actor and Seal Beach native, posted a rant: “Wow so sad that some crazy bastard went on a rampage in Seal Beach. I did K-3rd grade and still have lots of friends there … loser.” Even stranger connections emerged.Former porn star and current Huntington Beach resident Jenna Jameson, for example, tweeted that she was praying for a family friend whose mother and sister were among the victims.

Most of the Internet wellspring was from ordinary people who simply felt the urge to interpret the event or perhaps play some small role in it. It would be easy to attribute that to the craving to become famous, except that most chose to remain anonymous behind cryptic screen names. An Orange County man who identified himself on YouTube as “Lyrradd,” for example, posted a video from his car, “around the corner” from Seal Beach, in which he pleaded: “We have to start identifying people when they’re having these problems … people please start turning in your family members.”

It wasn’t long before catharsis gave way to spin. Liberal tweeters gleefully pointed out Dekraai’s license plate holder, which touted a website called jointheteaparty.us. On the “Scallywag & Vagabond” blog, a headline proclaimed Dekraai to be an “ex-militia man.”

At the other end of the ideological spectrum, pro-gun bloggers blamed the eight dead on Gov. Jerry Brown, who a few days before had signed a law barring Californians from openly carrying firearms without a permit. One gun supporter posted a YouTube video that consisted entirely of a still image of the Salon Meritage’s parking lot, apparently pulled from Google Maps, emblazoned with a message: “6 shot dead following AB144 Open Carry Ban, Seal Beach CA link below.” (The video has since been taken down.)

Victoria Lynch, a Delaware woman who identifies herself as “wife, mother, homemaker, women’s Bible study teacher and very amateur theology buff,” tweeted: “Seal Beach-& the gun control nuts will be out in force—we have 2 much gun control—if a citizen or 2 had been armed lives may have been saved.” Lil Chantilly, author of the blog “Heels and Handguns,” speculated: “What if a couple of the girls had loaded weapons in their drawer beside their combs?”

In the wake of the tragedy, another particularly provocative meme emerged: Dekraai was somehow connected to or inspired by the fathers’ rights movement, a loose assortment of groups that decry what they perceive as unfair treatment of divorced fathers by the courts in child custody cases, and who sometimes advise men on legal tactics.

The day after the slayings, a blogger using the name Liz Salander (a reference to the protagonist of Stieg Larsson’s best-selling “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”), posted an essay denouncing Dekraai. “Apparently, the killer remarried and wanted his ex-wife out of the picture—how many times do we see this trend?” “Salander” went on to suggest that in going back to court and contesting the custody arrangement for his son, Dekraai may have been following the playbook of fathers’ rights organizations. “If this ‘father’ was following these tactics, as it appears he was by going back to court and seeking ‘sole custody,’ then he was bringing on the stress to himself.” She added: “Who can be surprised when something like this happens?”

On the Internet, unfounded assumptions quickly go viral, and this one was no exception. The meme popped up on scores of other feminist blogs as well, and it continues to resonate. In March, the Southern Poverty Law Center included Dekraai in a report on the radical men’s rights movement, including him among the “soldiers in the war” against feminism.

A few self-proclaimed men’s rights bloggers were eager to claim the shooting suspect as one of their own—or at least simpatico. In the days following the crime, the Alliance for Non-Custodial Parents Rights reposted a Reuters article on the case with the preface: “Another tragedy brought to you from the divorce courts of America.” At “The World According to Bob,” blogger Bob Allen, who “advocates for the basic rights of men,” praised Dekraai, explaining that “one MAN refused to go quietly into the night as ordered by femiNazi and their lieyers [sic] and agents of Satan in black robes of hell.”

Similarly, a blogger at an obscure men’s rights website, inmalafive.com, reposted a news article about the case, with his own headline “Anti-Male, Anti-Father Divorce Laws Drive Man to Commit Heinous Rage Shooting Against Ex-Wife.” He added a postscript in which he referenced “the role of feminism in poisoning the relationships between men and women.” A string of enthusiastic commenters agreed. Wrote one: “This type of offensive action might just start making women and their supporters think twice.”

 

In real life, Dekraai doesn’t seem to have had any significant involvement in any organization or movement. His public defender, Scott Saunders, did not respond to a request for comment. But Orange Coast found that the only trace of political activism on Dekraai’s part, other than his license plate frame, is a $300 contribution in 2010 to a now-defunct Mesa, Ariz.-based political action committee called Stop This Insanity, according to Federal Election Commission records. That group does not appear to have ever funneled contributions from Dekraai or anyone else to federal political candidates, and eventually decided to give up its legal status as a PAC, according to records. Even the website on Dekraai’s license plate holder, jointtheteaparty.us, went dark months before the shooting, according to the Internet Archive, an organization that tracks the history of websites.

Dekraai doesn’t have any apparent links to the fathers’ rights or men’s rights movements, which don’t appear to have any significant presence in Orange County. “I had never heard of him,” says Paul Elam, a Houston, Texas-based activist who writes the “A Voice for Men” blog and who is in touch with fathers’ rights organizations across the nation. “Dekraai was not involved in this movement. I can’t say that he never went to a men’s rights website. But if anybody who has any credibility in the movement had been aware of Scott Dekraai, I think they would have reached out to him and tried to stop him from doing this.”

Elam concedes that “we’ve got our share of nut cases, like anyone else. On this site, we average about one a month—a guy will sign up, and his first comment is something like, ‘I’d like to beat those bitches to death.’ I send him back a message saying that his IP address is banned, and suggest that he get some professional help.”

Harry Crouch, a San Diego-based activist who works with the California Men’s Centers, says he has no knowledge of Dekraai ever being involved in activism. “I hate to disappoint the [Southern Poverty Law Center], but in the 20 years of my involvement in the [men’s rights movement], killers never rose to the level of being included in our recruitment efforts.”

Even Arthur Goldwag, author of the law center’s article that insinuated Dekraai was a men’s rights extremist, concedes that the reference was a mistake, which he says slipped into the piece during the editing process. Dekraai “got conflated with other people who did have an agenda,” he says. “There’s been no evidence that he was in a fathers’ rights group.”

For someone who has become a subject of obsession and fascination on the Web, Dekraai doesn’t seem to have had much of an online presence. While police seized computers from his Huntington Beach home, a search of 25 social networks, from Twitter to LinkedIn, failed to turn up a trace of him. He didn’t have a blog or a personal website—at least, that is, until his arrest. The next day, a Chandler, Ariz., woman registered the domain name scottdekraai.com, according to the Internet registrar whois.com. The site is now dormant, and the woman who owns the URL did not respond to an interview request.

 

Since his arrest, Dekraai has been held without bail at the Orange County Jail in Santa Ana. Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals has set an Oct. 15 trial date. Dekraai’s 8-year-old son has been in the temporary care of Fournier’s adult daughter from a previous marriage, Chelsea Huff, who reportedly is in a legal dispute with Dekraai’s mother over the boy’s custody.

The facts that emerged about Dekraai in court documents and media reports turned out to be a lot less sensational than the various Internet theories about him. He was a career marine crew member and captain whose life reportedly careened downhill after a 2007 accident on a tugboat. According to a contemporaneous account published in Professional Mariner magazine, Dekraai was on the Emma Foss off Marina del Rey when a tow line attached to a barge snapped. Twenty-six-year-old Huntington Beach resident Piper Cameron was slammed against a rail, crushing her against the tug’s bulwark. Dekraai reportedly rushed to help Cameron, but was unable to save her. In the process, he was struck by the taut rope himself, breaking his leg so severely that he required nine hours of surgery. A Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department investigator called Dekraai’s response “a very heroic act.”

But Dekraai reportedly was left with a significant disability and post-traumatic stress disorder. In court documents, his ex-wife described him as mentally unstable, and said he had been physically abusive during their eight-year marriage. She also said he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and claimed he had problems “with his own medication and his reaction to same.” In the affidavit for the warrant to search Dekraai’s home, a detective said Dekraai, after arguing with his ex-wife on the morning of Oct. 12, had contemplated killing her as he sat on the sand at Bolsa Chica State Beach before driving to the salon.

Those details make the suspect sound like a near-perfect example of the template described by UC San Diego researchers in a 1999 article in Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. After looking at 30 cases of mass murder, they observed that the perpetrators tend to be “single or divorced males in their fourth decade of life” suffering from paranoia, depression, personality disorders, or some combination of those problems. “The mass murder is precipitated by a major loss related to employment or relationship,” they wrote. “A warrior mentality suffuses the planning and attack behavior of the subject, and greater deaths and higher casualty rates are significantly more likely if the perpetrator is psychotic at the time of the offense.”

But that explanation may be too clinical to satisfy the Internet pundits. About a week after the attack, the alternate-universe speculation may have peaked with an Oct. 21 post by Carlyle Coash, a Northern California-based blogger for globalwarmingisreal.com. He suggested that Dekraai may have been driven to madness—along with those responsible for a workplace shooting in San Jose, and an incident in which a shooter fired randomly at freeway traffic in the San Diego area—by despair over, of all things, environmental problems.

 

This article originally appeared in the June2012 issue of Orange Coast magazine. 

 

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