Last Feb. 9, Orange County sheriff’s deputies responding to a 911 call arrived about 2 a.m. at the three-story hillside mansion that Brad and Andra Sachs shared with their large family in San Juan Capistrano.
The officers found the couple’s youngest, 8-year-old Landon, facedown in a hallway, wounded and crippled by a bullet that had struck him in the torso. Another round fired into the bedroom of 17-year-old Alexis narrowly missed her. Only 15-year-old Lana, who’d been sleeping in her room with two of the family’s three dogs, had escaped the attacker’s attention. Eldest sons Myles, 21, and Ashton, 19, had moved to Washington state to attend college, so they weren’t around. Brad and Andra may not have seen or heard the intruder—or the .22-caliber semiautomatic rifle pointed at them. Deputies found 57-year-old Brad and 54-year-old Andra dead in their bed, their bodies riddled with gunshots, a number of which could have killed them. “There was blood all over the bed,” one of the officers later testified.
The rampage stunned not only family members, but the community. “They were just loving, smiling people,” a friend of Andra’s told a local TV station. “I couldn’t imagine anybody wanting to hurt them for anything.” News organizations speculated that the slayings stemmed from the Sachses’ business dealings. The couple had cycled through a number of entrepreneurial endeavors, and Andra had accumulated a sizable portfolio of residential and commercial properties, including the six-bedroom, eight-bath, 8,784-square-foot home where they died.
But numbing shock turned to utter disbelief less than a month later, when police announced they had arrested Ashton Colby Sachs, the couples’ second-oldest son. The case against the teen includes his own words and damning physical evidence. Inside the white Toyota Prius that his mother recently had bought him, police found a Ruger semiautomatic rifle. A ballistics expert testified at a grand jury hearing that the bullets recovered from the mansion had been fired from that weapon.
But to this day, his motive remains a mystery.
“This is where I hit a wall,” says Ruth Briscoe, another longtime friend of Andra Sachs’. “What would trigger him?”
Ashton told Orange County sheriff’s detectives shortly after his arrest that he didn’t have a reason, “just a lot of problems.” His life, he said, was “fucked up.” He’d stopped going to school, and was spending his time smoking pot and playing video games. He said he didn’t trust his parents, who’d made him feel like “crap” by favoring his siblings. His plan had been to shoot the couple and kill himself, he told detectives, but he couldn’t explain why he wounded Landon and shot at Alexis.
Today he’s housed in the Orange County Central Men’s Jail awaiting trial—possibly next year—on two charges of murder and two of attempted murder related to the attacks on his siblings. The district attorney’s office may seek the death penalty.
It’s an unimaginable turn, say family members and others who insist Ashton was upbeat when he moved to Seattle in the fall of 2013. “He was telling me about his plans for the future,” says maternal aunt Stephanie Garber, of Queens, N.Y., recalling a lunch she had with him before his move.
So what went wrong?
Could Ashton be that archetypal character in the annals of Southern California crime—the narcissistic child of unearned privilege who reacts violently against those he perceives as thwarting his desires. Or is it more complicated?
The truth about what happened that February morning on Peppertree Bend may be buried deep in the history of a singular—and trauma-scarred—family, one that was headed by a matriarch who seemed like kid-loving, career-juggling Elyse Keaton of “Family Ties,” and Gemma Morrow, the no-nonsense biker mom of “Sons of Anarchy,” rolled into one.
Andra Resa Sachs was never the subject of an in-depth profile in a business publication. The nearest she got to publicity was a February 2010 article in The Orange County Register about Plug In Solutions, a company she’d started with her husband to convert hybrid vehicles to electric-only power. Only Brad was quoted, and while Andra was photographed—her face framed by a thick blond bob cut—she was not identified in the caption.
But hers was the more compelling tale, a truly American story of a self-made woman who parlayed business savvy, an imposing physical presence, and a streak of unscrupulousness into a real estate empire that may have been worth as much as $80 million. “She was a shrewd businesswoman,” recalls Monte Burghardt, a Laguna Niguel real estate broker. “She was tough, very intimidating.” She stood about 5-foot-11, Burghardt says, and had a physical presence “like she was Xena, warrior princess.”
Andra spent most of her childhood amid the suburban comforts of College Park, Md., where her father worked for the National Security Administration. When she was about 15, he retired and moved his wife, son, and four daughters to San Diego. While he was in the process of selling one house and buying another, he ran so low on cash that he struggled to feed the family for about a week. According to Lesley Summers, another of Andra’s sisters, it was an experience Andra would never forget: “She told me, ‘That’s never going to happen to me. I’ll never allow myself to be short of money.’ ”
Andra started making a good living not long after graduating with a business degree from Cal State Long Beach, in the early 1980s, working for a company that sold integrated computer circuits. Her success gave her the confidence to strike out on her own. In 1994, she founded a company that sold semiconductors, with offices in a Westminster commercial park. “That smart cookie, she called it Minority Electronics because she was Jewish and a woman,” marvels Briscoe. “She got all the government contracts. She was just wickedly brilliant.”
By that time she’d married Bradford Sachs, a San Clemente High School grad with a passion for surfing and playing the drums. They’d met at a computer trade show and became business partners, running everything from a telemarketing company to a Sunset Beach wine bar called Taste of Napa. “Brad was a laid-back surfer,” Burghardt says. “He never raised his voice.”
Within six years, they had four children—first Myles and Ashton, and then the girls, Alexis and Sabrina, who were born only 11 months apart. And, in a major coup in 1998, they acquired Flashcom, an Internet DSL service, and obtained $15 million in venture capital for it.
The family lived in Pacific Palisades before moving to a 5,400-square-foot waterfront home in Huntington Beach. It was there, on April 28, 1999, that the family first began to fracture.
That day—with Brad out of town on business—Andra went to work, and left the two youngest in the care of their 28-year-old nanny. About 10 a.m., the nanny, whom Andra knew only as Lorena, was cooking in the kitchen when she saw 2-year-old Alexis outside on the deck of the spa. She grabbed 16-month-old Sabrina from her high chair, and went out to get the older sister. But at the deck, Lorena told investigators, Alexis “began fussing, kicking, and wiggling” and knocked Sabrina, whom the nanny had set on the deck, into the spa.
A panic-stricken Lorena ran to get her husband, who was upstairs in the home. He attempted what investigators called “feeble” attempts at CPR as Lorena called Andra at work. Andra, in hysterics, told her to call 911, but the emergency response was delayed because the dispatcher could not understand the nanny, who spoke only Spanish. Paramedics tried to revive the child, but she was pronounced dead at Huntington Beach Hospital. Police considered the death an accident, the coroner’s investigator reported.
The tragedy devastated the family. Within six months, Brad filed for divorce, accusing his wife in a court declaration of being mentally unbalanced, of having “some psychological problem that results in manic sessions that are unpredictable, unfathomable, and incapable of being rationalized.” Andra, for her part, described Brad as a neglectful parent interested mostly in golf, surfing, playing the drums, and their business. She also complained in a January 2000 declaration that “to this day, we have had no counseling as a family and we have never dealt with the terrible tragedy of Sabrina’s death and the irreparable effect it has had on all of our lives.”
The marriage further crumbled against the backdrop of a stressful business dispute. In September 1999, Brad, acting at the behest of their venture capital investors, fired Andra from Flashcom. While he cited her “destructive raging,” she said in court papers that she “felt betrayed because … [he] always told me that he and I would be together in the business.”
In February 2000, a judge issued a divorce judgment after the couple reached a property settlement that awarded Brad $800,000 in proceeds from the sale of their doleful Huntington Beach house. On Feb. 23, Flashcom paid Andra $9 million for her stake in the company—an outcome she’d helped engineer by threatening to sue not only the investors, but also her estranged husband. Less than a year later, with both Sachses out of the picture, the company went bankrupt.
With a custody trial pending, Andra applied for a temporary restraining order against Brad in March 2000, alleging he had assaulted her in front of their children. But within two weeks, they reconciled. Andra’s friend Briscoe believes that even though they apparently had divorced, the couple wanted to keep the family together because “their children meant everything to them.”
Some nine years after those days of tumult and heartbreak, Brad and Andra Sachs celebrated their new San Juan Capistrano home with family members and friends. The neo-modern main house, which backs onto a hillside, was designed to make the most of the ocean views, with large windows and balconies on each floor. Also on the property were a pool, spa, and pool house. “Come home to Peppertree Bend and start living the Orange County lifestyle,” reads Zillow’s description of the property.
Andra acquired the home in March 2009 for the bargain price of $2.45 million; it was a bank repo that had been listed seven months earlier for $3.6 million. “We spent five hours there and made an offer the next day,” recalls Burghardt, who represented her in the transaction.
The broker was one of the guests at their housewarming. He’d met Andra at an open house and had come to admire her forthrightness. “Don’t piss her off. Don’t lie to her,” he says. “She was a straight-shooter. If you tried to finagle her … she’d be all over you fast.” Andra had a good sense of market timing, and avoided debt by paying all cash for her properties. The acquisitions were made through limited liability companies that would serve as a shield for her personal assets if, for example, a tenant sued her. Because Andra bought properties through corporate entities, Brad’s name wasn’t on any of them.
“You can make lots of money … but the most difficult task is to keep it,” Andra wrote in an online bio. “The business world is full of many vultures and predators that want to make money the easy way.”
The housewarming celebrated Andra’s latest real estate triumph, as well as the family’s apparent resilience. From the traumas of 1999—Andra described it in a legal proceeding as “absolutely the most horrific, worst year of my life”—they seemed to have emerged relatively intact. Brad and Andra were still a couple and still lived together, but the divorce had given her complete financial separation from him. “She told me, ‘I’m not going to share my money with a man, ever. I don’t want to not have control, ever,’ ” Briscoe recalls.
They’d even added to their brood by adopting Landon and his older sister Lana from a Russian orphanage in 2007.
But at the housewarming, Burghardt was unnerved by the behavior of one of the other children. At one point, he says, “I felt like I’d been hit with a gallon of water from a garden hose.” Standing atop the waterfall that emptied into the pool was Ashton, then about 15. “He was up there with a bazooka-style water gun. He’d shot me in the side of the head.”
Dark-haired, skinny, and quite a bit shorter than his older brother, Ashton was known as a practical joker. “He never hurt anyone,” says Summers. “To us, it was like pranks.”
But Briscoe remembers him as “one of those squirrely kids who didn’t have boundaries” and was “always looking for an audience. He didn’t like the word ‘no.’ He didn’t really have coping skills.”
By 2012, Ashton apparently had matured. In a May email to her sister Lesley Summers, Andra wrote glowingly about her son as he was about to graduate from Dana Hills High School, where he was an A student with a knack for computers. “We are so proud of Ashton,” she gushed. “He’s really blossoming into a fine young man.” She went on to say he was going to UC Irvine to major in computer science and, after that, might go to law school. “All the hard work is finally paying off, and we could not be any more proud.”
But 15 months later, things already were off-track. Ashton, says Summers, “was a little messed up, like emotional issues.” His mother was concerned about the amount of time he spent playing League of Legends and World of Warcraft video games. And he’d taken a breakup with a girlfriend very hard—to the point of overdosing on pills. Ashton would tell police that his parents’ reaction to the overdose was surprisingly casual: “They really didn’t take it serious or acknowledge [it].”
Andra’s remedy for Ashton’s ills was, as Briscoe puts it, “to give him a clean slate” by moving him to Seattle in 2013. His brother Myles, a student at Washington State University, would be nearby, as would Nina Lifschultz, one of his mother’s closest friends. Andra had taken care of Lifschultz’s son Schuyler when he needed to get away from Seattle, Andra’s sister Stephanie Garber says. “It was reciprocated that Nina would watch her kids.” Ashton enrolled at North Seattle Community College—it may have been too late to apply to a four-year school for the fall semester—and his mother set him up in style, buying him a condo for $233,500, as well as the white Prius.
Ashton returned home for the holidays. On Jan. 3, he and his mother met Briscoe for lunch in Del Mar. “He was really positive about his future,” Andra’s childhood friend says. “It didn’t seem like he was up against a wall, that he was desperate.” After the meal, Ashton and his mother set off for a long walk on the beach.
Briscoe would never see Andra again.
Ashton told police he drove back to Orange County from Seattle about five weeks later, arriving in San Juan Capistrano late on that Saturday evening of Feb. 8. For reasons that remain unclear, he whiled away an hour or two in the parking lot of a commercial building that his mother owned on Calle Perfecto. Then he made his way to Peppertree Bend.
After entering the home about 1:30 a.m., he told police, he wandered around upstairs for 10 to 15 minutes, “thinking about what to do, whether to go through with it.” He concluded he had to kill his parents, who were asleep in their bed. He shot them first—it’s unclear why those shots didn’t wake his siblings or the dogs—and said he felt “a rush” and that he was “something twisted.” He continued with the shooting spree, and, despite his supposed plan to kill himself, he made no attempt to do so. He returned to his car out front, and drove back to the parking lot on Calle Perfecto, where he called a cab to take him to John Wayne Airport. Police believe he’d bought an American Airlines ticket on his drive to Orange County. He was back in Seattle by 10 a.m.
Ashton Sachs was arrested nearly a month later, on March 6. Cellphone records suggested a link between the Prius and the shootings, and police traced the car to the Seattle-area home of the owner of an auto transportation company. Those records showed that Ashton had called to have the car shipped from the Calle Perfecto lot shortly after the murders. The company’s owner told the grand jury he was holding the car until Ashton could pick it up. Ashton’s alibi—that he’d been in Seattle at the time of the murders—had fallen apart. Inside the vehicle, police found the Ruger.
“He loaded the gun, got in the car, drove all the way down here to commit this crime,” Deputy District Attorney Ebrahim Baytieh told the grand jury that indicted Ashton in June. The prosecutor ridiculed the young man’s statements to police that he was a victim of parental neglect and indifference: “Spoiled people that like to play video games all the time and get called on it, it’s easier to point the finger [and say], ‘Mom and Dad were not nice to me. That’s why I did it.’ ”
Andra’s sisters and friends insist that what Ashton told police doesn’t make sense considering her devotion to her children. But his mother clearly was losing patience with his slacker ways, and was planning major changes for her family that included selling the Peppertree Bend home and simplifying their lifestyle.
“You’re very ungrateful to a wonderful mother,” Andra told Ashton in an August 2013 text message presented to the grand jury. “I really don’t owe you anything. You need to grow up.”
During the past few years, the family had taken some hits, most notably Brad’s aggressive form of Parkinson’s disease. Andra also lost a multiyear battle to prevent the State of California from collecting $688,000 in tax on the sale of her Flashcom stock. Making matters worse, the trustee of the Flashcom bankruptcy estate was seeking to recover the entire $9 million paid to her, arguing it was an illegal “preferential transfer”—a sweetheart deal. There also were legal disputes involving the Plug In Solutions company, a property she had acquired in Baja California, and tenants.
According to Summers, Andra was thinking about retiring with Brad to the San Diego area, where she’d gone to high school and still had friends and relatives. In late 2013, she offered just over $1 million for a 2,100-square-foot, three-bedroom waterfront home in Coronado. Though relatively modest by her standards, it would be drastically cheaper to maintain than Peppertree Bend and, Ruth Briscoe notes, Andra wanted a place where Brad “could have access to everything on one floor.” The paperwork was finalized Jan. 27—just two weeks before the murders.
Garber says her sister also was “looking to make some changes” in her financial arrangements. The exact nature of those changes is unclear, but a will Andra signed in May 2007 left most of her personal effects to her children, with distributions to be made through a trust until they reached age 30. Another trust she set up in 2010 to benefit the children appears to cover the distribution of real estate assets.
As for Ashton, other text messages suggest rising tensions between him and his mother. On Oct. 6 of last year, she told him, “We’ve deposited money into your bank account, but please spend it slowly.” On Nov. 28, she asked him to stop playing video games so much. He responded by referring to Myles as her “little pet” and complaining about being asked to get a part-time job.
On Feb. 7—just two days before the murders—they had their most heated exchange. After Andra complained that Ashton had forgotten his father’s 57th birthday the previous day, he texted her, “I forgot his birthday just as much as he forgot he has a son.” Andra’s shock registers even in written form: “Wow, no he didn’t. He loves you very much.”
Maybe Ashton Sachs was unhinged by the vicissitudes of his young adult life, the uncertainties building around him as he adjusted to living away from home, and his mother’s decision to finally say “no.” Or maybe the difficulties of his present fused with the traumas of his early childhood—the loss of his young sister, his parents’ often-frayed marriage—and festered unresolved in the darker reaches of his psyche, just waiting to erupt.
Even a trial might not get to the truth, or explain what, to many, appears completely inexplicable. “I can’t imagine how this happened,” says Garber. “I really can’t.”
If the D.A. doesn’t seek the death penalty, Ashton likely will face life in prison without parole. His aunt Lesley reports that he has asked for a book titled “Black Holes and Time Warps.”
“He made a very, very bad choice and he knows it now,” she says. “He’s probably a little crazy and sorry. He probably thinks he can travel back in time to change things.”