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O.C. salon murder case stalls as D.A. office's removal is appealed

The O.C. salon mass-murder case continues to drag on as the D.A. office's removal is appealed

For 3 1/2 years, Paul Wilson has waited for his wife's killer to face trial, a wait protracted by lengthy evidentiary hearings probing the mishandling of the case by authorities.

On Friday, he learned the process has no end in sight, as government attorneys announced they will appeal a judge's ruling to throw the Orange County district attorney's office off its most high-profile murder case.

Moments after he was informed the wait might stretch on for at least another year, Wilson passed Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas in the courtroom and muttered a single angry word at him: "Disgusting."

Rackauckas' handling of the case of mass shooter Scott Dekraai — who has pleaded guilty to murdering eight people at a Seal Beach salon in 2011 and awaits sentencing — had become a "comedy of errors," Orange County Judge Thomas Goethals said last week.

The judge ruled the D.A.'s office had violated Dekraai's rights by improperly withholding evidence from the defense, and said the state attorney general's office should handle the case instead.

In remarks at the courthouse Friday, Todd Spitzer, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, called for greater oversight of the D.A.'s office and said the case was emblematic of Rackauckas' tendency "to botch cases."

"The system did not fail," Spitzer said. "It was Tony Rackauckas, the district attorney of Orange County, that failed."

Rather than take responsibility for the "debacle" in the Dekraai case, Spitzer said, Rackauckas' team tried to blame others, including Dekraai's attorney and Judge Goethals.

Spitzer referred to recent remarks in the Orange County Register by Rackauckas' campaign chairman, Michael Schroeder, describing the judge as "a disgruntled former employee of the D.A.'s office" who wasn't fair to prosecutors.

The county supervisor said Rackauckas presided over "probably the most disrespected district attorney executive team in California."

Spitzer also lashed out at Rackauckas' chief of staff, Susan Kang Schroeder, saying, "She goes for the jugular and tries to ruin people's lives — that's what Susan does."

Schroeder stood nearby, recording his tirade on her smartphone.

Schroeder said Spitzer had "anger management issues" and accused him of shameless grandstanding in a case he had nothing to do with.

"It's befuddling that he was even there at all," she said. "We're talking about the most tragic mass murder in Orange County history. He shouldn't put his political platform on top of their graves."

Rackauckas himself derided Spitzer's remarks as politically motivated. "He's clearly setting up his own run for district attorney," he said. "There was a microphone in the area."

Having pleaded guilty to the murders at Salon Meritage, Dekraai — a former tugboat captain — faces either life in prison without parole or the death penalty, and Rackauckas has pushed to put Dekraai on death row.

Goethals' decision to remove Rackauckas and his deputies came after contentious evidentiary hearings in which Dekraai's attorney, assistant public defender Scott Sanders, argued there was a wide-ranging conspiracy to flout defendants' rights with a jailhouse snitch program. Revelations from the hearings have already caused several serious felony cases to unravel.

Around the time the hearings started, early last year, prosecutors began filing dozens of motions to disqualify Goethals from their cases, alleging that he was prejudiced against their interests. The D.A.'s office denies that its leadership conspired to steer cases away from the judge.

Saying the state attorney general's office would appeal the D.A.'s removal, Deputy Atty. Gen. Theodore Cropley told Goethals that the appeal could take a year.

When the judge invited family members of victims to speak, they expressed anger and frustration with the fresh delay.

Wilson, whose wife, Christy, was shot down as she worked in the salon, recalled meeting Rackauckas soon after the murders.

"He looked at me with a tear in his eye, and he told me he had my back," Wilson said. He said he felt let down by Rackauckas. "I'm looking at another year of appeals.… I blame him. We shouldn't be here."

Bethany Webb, whose sister Laura Elody was killed in the massacre, emphasized the absurdity of wrangling over the death penalty in a state where defendants are seldom put to death.

"He's not gonna die in any execution chamber," Webb told the court. "You guys all know that he's gonna die of old age in prison."

Along with Christy Wilson and Laura Elody, killed in the salon attack were Dekraai's ex-wife, Michelle Fournier; salon owner Randy Fannin; Lucia Kondas; Michele Fast; Victoria Buzzo; and David Caouette, who was shot as he sat in his car outside.

The judge asked the lawyers to reconvene in his courtroom July 24 "and we'll see where we are."

christopher.goffard@latimes.com

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