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The Death of Innocents No Accident

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The man who rammed his car into a Costa Mesa playground, killing two preschoolers and injuring five other people, confessed that he acted out of frustration over a failed relationship and intentionally sought to kill the children because they were innocent, police said Tuesday.

Police, who are seeking murder and assault charges against Steven Allen Abrams, said the suspect had no direct link to the preschool. But in his own mind, police said, Abrams made a “twisted connection” between the school and what he claimed was a rocky relationship with a woman from the same neighborhood.

Following Abrams’ arrest Monday evening, Costa Mesa police quoted him as saying: “I was going to execute these children because they were innocent,” Lt. Ron Smith said.

Five years ago, the woman obtained a restraining order against Abrams, claiming that he had threatened to kill her husband, court records show.

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But Abrams and the woman, who has denied a romantic relationship with him, recently met by chance at a local store, police said. That encounter may have rekindled past resentment in Abrams, Smith said.

“I’m surmising that he associated the preschool with a symbol of the relationship,” Smith said. “So [the school] became a target to draw attention to this incident five years ago.”

Abrams, 39, of Santa Ana, smashed his car into the front play area of the Southcoast Early Childhood Learning Center on Monday evening, transforming a scene of happy, frolicking toddlers into one of horror. Three children were pinned under the car. As onlookers rushed to help, Abrams remained seated inside his Cadillac Coupe de Ville.

Sierra Soto, 4, and Brandon Wiener, 3, were killed. Victoria Sherman, 5, and Nicholas McHardy, 2, both suffered head injuries. Officials at Western Medical Center-Santa Ana declined Tuesday to release information about their conditions at the request of their families.

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Ian Wright, 3, and Jasmine Saltzman, 2, were treated for minor injuries and released Monday night, police said. A 24-year-old teacher’s aide, Danielle Diaz-Knecht, was expected to be released late Tuesday or Wednesday after sustaining a broken leg.

On Tuesday, Abrams’ 19-year-old daughter, Stephanie, expressed deep regret over her father’s actions and said she believes he just “snapped.”

“I believe it wasn’t my dad that did it. I believe he wasn’t mentally sane when he did it. If you talk to anyone about my dad, he just tries to help people,” she said.

She added that she believes her father reacted badly to the stress of a traffic accident they were involved in 30 minutes before the preschool crash.

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Stephanie Abrams said she and her father were traveling north in the carpool lane of the Costa Mesa Freeway when a green Toyota Camry cut them off. Steven Abrams couldn’t help but smash into the back of the car, she said.

But police said Abrams suddenly became enraged once the car darted in front of them, accelerated and then smashed into the Camry’s rear, bumping the car along for about 100 feet.

Stephanie Abrams said she and her father returned home after the collision and attempted to make a report to authorities. But her father failed to get through to police on the phone, she said.

Instead, he left the house soon afterward without telling his daughter where he was headed, she said.

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“He didn’t seem mad at all. He just told me he loved me, and he left,” Stephanie Abrams said, adding that she had believed he was going to a friend’s house or out for a drive.

Instead, police said, Steven Abrams drove past the school, made a U-turn and drove full bore at the school’s play yard out front.

An Attempt to Make ‘a Larger Statement’

Stephanie Abrams said her father never talked about hurting anyone. But she said he sometimes expressed frustration over his relationship with the woman who obtained a restraining order that “had him labeled a stalker.” The woman is named in court documents; The Times could not reach her for comment and is not publishing her name.

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She said her father had loaned the woman $800 to $1,000 so that her preschool-age daughter could have an eye operation. When the woman ended the relationship, she had not paid back all of the money, Stephanie Abrams said.

But detectives and court records show a different side.

Police said Steven Abrams lashed out at the schoolchildren in an attempt to make “a larger statement.”

“He told everybody [at the crash scene]) that, in his words, he wanted to execute those children,” Smith said.

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Steven Abrams also told police that he and the woman had a brief but passionate relationship some years ago while the two lived next door only blocks away from the preschool.

Whatever kind of friendship they once shared, their relationship had clearly soured by 1994, when the woman obtained a restraining order against Abrams, claiming he had stalked her for about six months.

The woman told the court that Abrams was an “irrational person” and that she feared for herself and her family.

“He was constantly harassing me at my place of residence,” she said in court papers, “and finally went out and got a gun and threatened to kill my husband.”

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Even after she moved, Abrams tracked her down and resumed the harassment, she alleged. A judge ordered Abrams to remain at least 100 yards from the woman and her family.

Soon afterward, however, Abrams violated the court order. He was arrested in May 1994 for harassing the woman at her workplace.

Daughter Agonizes Over Father’s Actions

As Abrams was being arrested, he told police that he would never honor the order. He added that he had been “railroaded by judges who refused to listen to his evidence in the case,” according to the police report.

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The arresting officer said in his report that Abrams “told me that his ex-lover was working there, and that she owed him $194 for a personal loan for medical services for [her] daughter.”

Nearly two months after the arrest, Abrams pleaded guilty to charges of stalking and making anonymous harassment calls to the woman, and was sentenced to 90 days in jail and three years’ probation, court records show.

At the same time, he pleaded guilty to a charge of disturbing the peace over an incident a few months earlier that involved his daughter. Stephanie Abrams said the original charge, which was child abuse, was a bogus one stemming from a custody dispute between her father and her mother.

Police believe that Abrams’ feelings of anger over the way he was treated resurfaced after bumping int the woman about three weeks ago at a Staples store a few blocks from the school.

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On Tuesday, as relatives of the victims met to mourn at the crash scene, Abrams’ family tried to deal with their own tragedy.

Ken Oberlin, Abrams’ brother-in-law and boss at Ticket Shack in Costa Mesa, was near tears as he spoke of Abrams’ actions. Abrams, he said, was “a nice kid” who left the store on Monday afternoon in a cheerful mood.

And at her Santa Ana home, Stephanie Abrams spoke lovingly of her father as she agonized over the accusations against him. She explained that he was “almost the perfect father,” a single parent who worked six days a week and always cooked them dinner.

“I just am really sorry that this happened,” she said. “It’s the worst thing that could possibly ever happen to anybody. . . . I’m just really sorry and I know my dad’s just really sorry too.”

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Contributing to this report were Times staff writers Jeff Gottlieb, Matthew Ebnet, Megan Garvey, Jean O. Pasco, Phil Willon and David Reyes, and librarians Lois Hooker and Sheila A. Kern.


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