It was easy to assume over the recent Presidents Day weekend that nothing much could really go wrong here in Orange County. For one thing the weather was spectacular--hot but clear, making it possible to see the Pacific glittering in one direction and the snowcapped San Gabriels in the other.
A Santa Ana breeze so subtle you hardly knew it was there wafted in from the desert and whisked away the smog. In the evenings you could smell the first blooms of spring in the air--honeysuckle and nightshade--not to mention that narcotic aroma indigenous to the Southern California summer: suntan lotion and car exhaust.
Everyone was going everywhere.
The coastal towns bore the brunt of humanity as they usually do, with scores of thousands of people on the beaches or on the roads trying to get to or from the beaches. There was a collective feeling of cabin fever in the county, on the heels of a winter during which it was often hard to do much more than stay inside and watch the rain fall.
Come Presidents Day weekend, however, that all changed, and nobody stayed inside unless he had to. The whole county turned out for this one, like small-town folk flocking to see a traveling circus.
Monday night it all changed. The winds kicked up harder, and the bank of dark clouds that had advanced almost all the way to the coast were stopped cold, just a few miles offshore. At 8:30, a man with a gun walked into Conroy's Flowers on Harbor Boulevard in Costa Mesa, demanded cash and got $140. He didn't fire.
For 10 minutes, lightning popped across the black sky. Then, a man with the gun walked into Blockbuster Music just down the boulevard, demanded money again and took $300 out the door with him. He didn't shoot anyone.
By then the humidity had jumped and the barometric pressure fallen, but still the dry winds blustered across the county toward the ocean. The opposites pushed and pulled themselves to a draw, apparently, with neither side owning the strength to make a clear sweep. It was easy to get the feeling--whether you knew there was a nasty little crime spree going down in Costa Mesa--that you were on contested ground.
The wind blew and the clouds piled up, and about 9 o'clock a gunman was standing in the Baskin-Robbins ice cream shop in Tustin, pointing a 9mm handgun into the face of a clerk. He got his $200 and ran. He also had a video made of himself in the act, though he didn't realize it at the time.
By 9:30 the lightning was still flashing in the western sky. The night had finally cooled, though the dry winds lingered. A man with a gun--quite possibly the same man with the same gun who had just visited Costa Mesa and Tustin--walked into the Baskin- Robbins parlor on Broadway in Laguna Beach. He was described as 20ish, possibly Latino. He wore a long dark trench coat, khaki pants and blue tennis shoes. He had a tan scarf, but it wasn't enough to hide the calligraphic tattoos on his neck, nor the teardrop tattoos under his eyelids.
He demanded money from the two owners--husband and wife--who were busy cleaning up the store for closing after this busy holiday Monday. They looked at him, perhaps wondering just what kind of fellow carries a gun and has teardrops tattooed under his eyelids. Perhaps they told him to get lost. At any rate, they refused to give him their money.
So he shot the woman. She fell with a scream behind the counter. Her husband attacked with the only weapon a Laguna Beach ice-cream store owner is likely to have--the mop he was using to clean his shop. So the gunman shot him too, dropping him to the floor. He shot at him again but missed. The clerk was bleeding hard, and the woman was screaming.
The gunman ran out, not a dime richer for his effort, scooting past the sidewalk diners of Romeo Cucina Restaurant, into the Wells Fargo Bank parking lot and from there, no one quite knows.
It helps to know a little about this couple with the bullets in them.
She was short and pleasant, 53 years old, of Iranian blood. She had reddish hair and an engaging smile made more genuine by the fact that her eyes had seen a lot of life. You could tell this by the lines around both the smile and the eyes. (She once joined other women in the streets of Tehran to protest the policies of the Ayatollah Khomeini.)
She had worked in the ice cream store roughly 12 hours a day, roughly seven days a week for roughly two years. She was invariably cheerful, helpful and gave you a whopping scoop for your money. If there is an intangible thing that makes some people likable, she had it. She was without presumption. Her name was Simindokht Roshdieh. She was the kind of person you'd duck in to say hello to, even though it was 40 degrees and pouring rain and you wouldn't eat ice cream if she gave it to you.
Strangely--or maybe not strangely at all--she had asked a City Council candidate last November to get more cops on the street because the merchants were scared someone was going to get killed.
The man, Firooz Roshdieh, is 62. He and his wife left Iran a decade ago. He had been a successful oil executive under the Shah but had fallen on hard times under the new regime. He has candidly admitted that it's a bit hard to go from being a player in the Middle Eastern oil business to running an ice cream parlor. But you wouldn't know it from his face or his attitude.
There he was, in the shop, all day and every day, with his wife scooping milk-fat products, wiping aluminum counters, mopping floors, making change, waiting on customers. Never a gripe or groan from him, never rudeness, never haste.
He is slender. And he has the strong forearms that--funny as it sounds--a person gets from scooping frozen ice cream for a living. He has sharp but gentle eyes, a prominent nose and a toothy smile that is disarming and makes you happy to look at. Like his wife, there is something about Firooz that lets you know he has seen things, and is happy to be alive, thankful to have a shop to run.
At 9:35 on that Monday night, though, there was probably very little thankfulness at all going through his mind as he lay in the widening pool of his own blood, on the floor he had been trying to mop, while his wife moaned, invisible to him behind the counter. Simindokht died quickly. Firooz bled profusely from the wound in his shoulder. He was released from the hospital earlier this week.
By 10:30 the Baskin-Robbins shop on Broadway was no longer an ice cream parlor but a crime scene marked off by thin yellow and black ribbon of some kind. There wasn't enough of it to go from one side of the store, out to the end of the sidewalk, then back to the other side of the store, so several pieces had been tied together. A policeman large and silent as an Easter Island statue occupied the doorway. He wore latex gloves. Through the windows you could see the mop, the upended stool, the blood.
Helicopters hovered in the darkness above, sending great cones of light earthward. The lightning had diminished by then, so that only occasionally a muffled bolt issued across the sky behind the choppers. Little crowds had gathered, hushed and somnambulant, disbelieving.
There were three Laguna Beach police cars, then there were five. A policeman took down the piecemeal ribbon and replaced it with the thick DO NOT CROSS tape found at crime scenes everywhere. Then he took it down and put it up around a larger area. Then they took it down again and strung it clear across Broadway in two places, halting traffic and sending cars into U-turns back the way they had come.
The next day the ice cream parlor was closed. Black plastic had been taped to the windows, and little Sheriff's Department WARNING!!! stickers placed across the doors. Twenty or thirty flower arrangements crowded the entryway of the shop, stacked amid the sandbags that Simindokht and Firooz Roshdieh had used just a week earlier to protect their shop from the forces of nature.
Along with the flowers were dozens of cards, a poem, blank sheets of paper for other people to write poems, an angel doll and a bouquet of pipe cleaners bent into the shapes of hearts.
The man with the long dark coat, 9mm gun, teardrop tattoos and $640 has not been found.