The kids call it “The Strands.”
This stretch of beach, between the glittering Ritz-Carlton hotel and the Dana Point Headlands, is a favorite gathering spot for children of this prosperous city by the sea. Teen-agers say the beach life here abounds with sun and surf and outdoor freedom.
But there is a dark side to this beach culture, and that darker picture has emerged during a lengthy, emotionally wrenching hearing in Juvenile Court the past two months. The hearing, which is scheduled to end today, involves the slaying of Robert James Elliott, 18, on Dana Point Strand on Sept. 8.
Christian Aaron Steffens, now 17, is accused of shooting Elliott following an exchange of words on the Strand. The hearing before Juvenile Court Judge Robert B. Hutson is to determine whether Steffens, who has been in custody in Juvenile Hall since the shooting, will be tried as an adult or juvenile. Hutson has indicated that he will announce his decision today.
Much of the testimony has been by associates of Steffens and Elliott. In halting, sometimes confusing surfer argot, the young witnesses have told a story about vendettas, gangs and guns among the white, upper-middle-class children of this sunny area.
Relatives of Steffens and Elliott have attended each day of the hearings. Occasionally some have broken into tears. Almost always, these relatives have pained, anguished looks as they hear the testimony about their children.
“We lived near the beach, and that was mistake No. 1,” said Christian’s father, Don Steffens, in comments outside of court. The Steffenses have moved from Dana Point since the fatal shooting.
The Steffenses formerly lived in a condo within walking distance of Dana Point Strand.
The events that led to the fatal shooting Sept. 8 all focused on or around the Strand. But the roots of the incident go back three years, to when Steffens was beaten in the eighth grade.
According to court testimony, Steffens and Caleb Cassidy, now 17, had a fight in eighth grade and bad blood existed between the two. Last summer, Steffens met Elliott and became afraid of him because he was a close friend of Cassidy, according to testimony.
Cynthia Steffens, the mother of Christian, testified that her son had been terrified of a gang-like group in Dana Point since the eighth grade. She testified that twice her son’s bedroom windows were shot out, and once he was assaulted and beaten by young toughs. She said her son was continually hounded, she believes, because he refused to associate with a skinhead group in Dana Point.
Ironically, young enemies of Christian Steffens believed that he was a gang member himself. Some teen-agers testified that he had bragged about being with a San Diego gang called the Death Wish Gang. But Deputy Public Defender Marri Derby argued that Steffens made up such claims to cover up his fears.
Testimony during the hearing about alleged gangs never proved that these gangs existed or that they had any role in the fatal shooting. But the testimony by the teen-agers clearly show that they believe that gang-like groups exist in the coastal area.
Elliott, according to court testimony, was thought by some of his youthful associates to have ties with a skinhead group in the Dana Point area. For instance, Scott Andrew, 19, who attended Serra Continuation High School with Elliott, testified: “Rob did hang out with skinheads.”
The pivotal event leading up to the fatal shooting was the breaking out of a window of Elliott’s parked pickup truck three weeks earlier. Elliott believed that Steffens had committed the vandalism. And one teen-aged witness testified that Steffens had privately admitted to him that he had broken out the window with a baseball bat.
On Sept. 5, Elliott and Steffens met on the Strand. Elliott accused Steffens of breaking the window and asked for payment, according to court testimony. Words were exchanged. Steffens, according to the testimony, threw the first punch, then fled.
The next day, a Thursday, classes opened at Dana Hills High, where Steffens was a junior. A teacher testified that two non-students, whom she could not identify, tried to hunt Steffens down while he was in her class that day. One of the young men yelled into the classroom, “Chris, we know you’re in there. We’re going to get you.”
The teacher, Christa Jurgensen, said Steffens was “scared” and hid in the corner until the young men left.
According to a 21-year-old former neighbor of Steffens, Steffens went to school on Friday, Sept. 7, carrying a loaded pistol loaned by another young friend. Steffens, according to the testimony, was carrying the pistol because he was “afraid for his life and his family.”
On Saturday, Sept. 8, Elliott went to the Strand with a friend, Jeff Dash, 20. Dash testified that Steffens was on the beach, wearing a cowboy hat and brandishing a pistol. Dash said Steffens told Elliott, “I’m going to (expletive) kill you.” A few minutes later, Steffens started walking away, and Elliott followed behind him, according to Dash and another witness. Then Steffens turned and fired the fatal shot, the two witnesses said.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Bernadette Cemore has argued that Steffens was not acting in self-defense and that he, in fact, was the aggressor in both the Sept. 5 fistfight with Elliott and the Sept. 8 fatal shooting.
In contrast, Derby, who is Steffens’ lawyer, has contended that Steffens was a “tormented” adolescent, living in fear for his life.