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'The face of evil': Worst mass shooter in Orange County history sentenced to life in prison

Lisa Powers will never forget her co-worker’s desperate final words.

The hairdresser was hiding in the bathroom of the Salon Meritage in Seal Beach seconds after Scott Evans Dekraai began to spray the room with bullets, turning the swank parlor into a horror scene.

On the other side of the bathroom door, Dekraai fired round after round and bodies slumped to the floor. Then she heard her colleague Laura Elody pleading for her life.

“ ‘Please stop,’ ” Powers recalled her co-worker saying to the gunman before he shot her dead. “ ‘Don’t do this.’ ”

Six years after he carried out the worst mass shooting in Orange County’s history, Dekraai was sentenced to life in prison Friday, ending a sprawling legal saga that embroiled local law enforcement leaders in a massive scandal and forced those who lost loved ones in the massacre to replay those blood-soaked moments through years of court proceedings.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals sentenced Dekraai, 47, to eight consecutive life sentences, one for each dead victim.

“The gates of hell flew open,” the judge told him, “and you emerged as the face of evil.”

Goethals reassured the crowd of victims’ relatives and friends that the killer would spend the rest of his life “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.”

Enraged over a custody dispute with ex-wife Michelle Fournier, Dekraai entered a side door of the crowded salon just after 1 p.m. on Oct. 12, 2011. Fournier, 48, and Elody, 46, were killed along with salon owner Randy Fannin, 62; Lucia Kondas, 65; Michele Fast, 47; Victoria Buzzo, 54; Christy Wilson, 47; and David Caouette, 64, who was shot outside in his car. A ninth victim, Hattie Stretz, was critically injured but survived.

In the downtown Santa Ana courtroom, Dekraai rocked slowly back and forth as he offered an apology.

“I can’t imagine the pain that I’ve caused,” he said. “Please believe me when I say I wish I could turn back the hands of time.”

While the massacre gained infamy for the brutality of Dekraai’s crime, the case has also gained notoriety for its role in exposing the so-called “snitch scandal.”

Evidence in the case led to sweeping allegations that authorities improperly used jailhouse informants to extract confessions from inmates and hid information about the snitch operations. The scandal has resulted in retrials in a number of other high-profile murder cases.

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 Orange County 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. Criticizing county officials for failing to turn over evidence about the informant operations, Goethals barred the Orange County district attorney’s office from trying the case and turned over jurisdiction to the California attorney general’s office.

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 the Sheriff’s Department have 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.

Last month, Goethals ruled that Dekraai could not be sentenced to death in the Seal Beach killings. The Sheriff’s Department’s repeated failure to turn over information about the use of informants, he said, would have prevented Dekraai from receiving a fair trial.

If not for missteps by prosecutors and sheriff’s officials, Goethals said in his decision at the time, Dekraai “would likely today be living alongside other convicted killers on California’s Death Row.”

On Friday, he told the victims’ relatives that they “deserve better.”

“The criminal justice system here in Orange County has largely failed you,” he said.

In a statement issued after the sentencing hearing, the district attorney’s office reiterated its opposition to Goethals’ decision to spare Dekraai from the death penalty.

The 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.

The victims’ relatives — themselves a painful family of sorts — gathered outside Goethals’ courtroom before the hearing, where they hugged and reflected on the idea 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.

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 Wilson’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 had expressed frustration with the delays in the case, with some asking prosecutors to abandon their pursuit of the death penalty and end their ordeal. Others turned their anger toward Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, contending they bungled a straightforward case by using an informant.

Wilson said Friday that the pain and suffering of his wife’s death was compounded by the “incompetence” of the district attorney’s office and the Sheriff’s Department.

“I wish they had the integrity not to cheat,” he 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 got her hair cut only 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 Fast’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.”

Doug Childers, the first person to enter the salon after the shooting, turned to Dekraai in the courtroom and spoke in a hoarse shout.

“You’re a monster,” he exclaimed.

Dekraai whispered an apology in reply, drawing further fury from Childers.

“Don’t apologize,” he said. “Your apologies are useless, like you.”

Los Angeles Times staff writer Jack Leonard contributed to this report.

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

james.queally@latimes.com

For more news on crime and courts in Southern California, follow us on Twitter: @marisagerber and @JamesQueallyLAT

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UPDATES:

5:15 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background about the killings.

12:30 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details from the sentencing hearing.

11:50 a.m.: This article was updated with a statement issued by the Orange County district attorney’s office.

11:40 a.m.: This article was updated with information about the sentence.

11:10 a.m.: This article was updated with comments made at the hearing by the victims’ relatives.

9:15 a.m.: This article was updated with details from outside the courtroom.

This article was originally published at 8:20 a.m.

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