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Internal Voices Blamed in Attack at Day-Care Center

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A man accused of intentionally plowing his car into a Costa Mesa preschool playground conceived the attack years in advance, hoping that killing “innocent” children would halt the voices he claims the government was beaming into his brain, according to records unsealed Friday.

Psychiatric reports, released by an Orange County judge at the request of The Times, provide the first detailed look into the mind of a man accused of killing two preschoolers and injuring four children and a teacher in May 1999.

In interviews with psychiatrists appointed by the court, Steven Allen Abrams repeatedly expressed disbelief at his own actions while justifying them as the only way to stop the “brain waves” that flooded his mind.

“I still don’t believe I did it, that I could possibly do what I did,” Abrams said. “I’m not a killer. . . . I love kids.”

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The 40-year-old Santa Ana man said he doesn’t care whether he’s put to death but worries about facing the families of the victims, Sierra Soto, 4, and Brandon Wiener, 3, in court.

“I dread the day I have to go to court to face them,” he said. “There’s nothing I could say to them. If I said, ‘sorry,’ that wouldn’t be appropriate.”

The 52 pages of psychiatric records portray Abrams as a man haunted by delusions that the CIA or other government agency wanted him to become a killer. For several years, he drove by the Costa Mesa day-care center, believing that if he killed the children, the government would stop torturing his mind.

According to those records, Abrams began to display mental problems in 1994, about the time he was charged with stalking a woman who had spurned him. He eventually spent several months in jail and at psychiatric hospitals. Abrams began looking for new meaning in coincidences and became convinced people were following him, according to the records.

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After interviewing Abrams at the Orange County Jail, Dr. David Sheffner concluded that he suffers from “a most severe and major disorder.” Another psychiatrist, Jose Moral, found that Abrams probably didn’t understand “the wrongfulness of his actions” at the time.

Abrams, who has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, could face the death penalty if convicted. His trial is expected to begin in the next few weeks in Superior Court in Santa Ana.

Abrams contended to the psychiatrists that he functioned normally until age 34, even raising a daughter as a single parent. Both psychiatrists traced Abrams’ mental troubles to his brief relationship that year with a neighbor, who broke up with him after a few weeks.

Abrams pleaded guilty to stalking the woman, but now claims he entered the plea only because the judge tricked him.

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“He was one of the brain wave people, the judge,” Abrams is quoted as saying in the psychiatric reports.

The attack at the Southcoast Early Childhood Learning Center came hours after a confrontation with another driver on the Costa Mesa Freeway. When the driver cut in front of him, Abrams said, he figured the government was behind the action, and he rammed the car until the driver got out of his way, according to the records.

He drove himself and his 19-year-old daughter home, then became enraged when he realized the freeway collision could cost him his driver’s license and his car.

“I’m going to end it all,” Abrams told his daughter, Stephanie Young, according to the reports.

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He grabbed his keys and left the house. He was ready “to do it, after all these years of thinking about it,” Abrams said in the records.

His daughter said she told him: “Don’t hurt anybody.”

The preschool, Abrams said, was an appropriate target because it was affiliated with a Baptist church. Abrams thought the Baptist church also might have been toying with his mind out of anti-Semitism. Abrams’ father, who died when he was a child, was Jewish, according to the records.

Abrams told psychiatrists that he drove past the preschool, turned around and accelerated into the playground, pinning children beneath his car. He sat in his car, weeping and rambling, until police arrived.

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For his insanity defense to prevail, Abrams’ lawyers must prove he could not understand the consequences of his actions on the day of the crime. Two court-appointed psychiatrists have concluded in their reports that Abrams suffers from psychotic delusions, but only one would say Abrams reached that legal threshold.

One of the doctors, Moral, wrote that he thought it was significant that Abrams has discussed the delusions with others for several years. His daughter told Moral that her father had talked about killing preschool children as long as five years ago, the records state.

In his interview with psychiatrist Sheffner, Abrams described dressing in military fatigues during psychotic episodes. The government was trying to reach him through television, radio, books and magazines, he said. Their message: Kill.

“I was training every day because I knew the military was doing this to me,” he said.

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If a jury finds Abrams not guilty by reason of insanity, he will be sent to a state psychiatric hospital indefinitely.

Abrams’ attorneys, Denise Gragg and Leonard Gumlia, would not comment on the psychiatric reports. Deputy Dist. Atty. Debora Lloyd, who argued against release of the records, said she thought the psychiatrists appointed by the court were “mostly defense doctors.”

“It’s one-sided,” she said of the reports.

Abrams said he understands the victims’ parents probably want him to get the death penalty.

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“They’re going to kill me, the brain wave people. They’re assassins,” Abrams said, according to the reports. “No matter what happens at the trial, I’ll have to deal with them in the end.”


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