For Gunman, Life Spent as Misfit Ends in Violence
Every month or so, the women of Brooks Circle gathered for a girls’ night out. Usually, there was a birthday to celebrate; sometimes not. Mainly, they met just to get out of the house and gab. Whether there was a specific reason or not, there was always plenty to talk about.
This summer, on the Saturday night after Independence Day, eight or nine of the ladies of Brooks Circle met at BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse in Valencia. A couple of the women had a very specific reason for meeting. They were concerned about the odd behavior of one of their neighbors, Jim Beck.
Even if Beck acted normally, which is to say, more like them, he would have been an unusual presence in the neighborhood just by the fact that he was single. Almost everybody else was married and many couples had young children.
After dinner, some of the women went off to a movie; the others talked about Beck. They wondered why he was always home. He said he was a U.S. marshal, but had anyone ever seen him go to work? Had anyone seen him in a uniform? One woman mentioned what seemed his unusual interest in children.
She knew that inside his home he had dozens of stuffed animals and a collection of Disney movies. “Why would a grown man have toys?” she wondered. The women discussed holding a neighborhood meeting and tipping off authorities.
“We knew that something wasn’t right,” the woman said. “It was instinct.”
That instinct proved resoundingly correct. James Allen Beck, 35, allegedly shot and killed a sheriff’s deputy nine days ago, then died in the fire that consumed his Stevenson Ranch home in the Santa Clarita Valley. Beck, according to public records and dozens of interviews, was a perpetual misfit, an inveterate liar, firearms aficionado and generally hapless con artist who had at various times in the last 15 years impersonated local police officers, a narcotics detective, a federal attorney and a U.S. marshal.
He was in and out of trouble and jail. He was not particularly adept at any of his scams and his lies were often discovered, but dismissed as evidence of a harmless, if peculiar, personality flaw. He sided with his mother in an acrimonious divorce from his well-to-do father, who wanted nothing to do with either of them afterward, and she rewarded his loyalty with financial support.
The most visible evidence of that support was the house on Brooks Circle. Beck’s neighborhood includes mostly two-story homes. They’re big houses, four and five bedrooms. They’re painted in lighter taupes, creams and grays. Many have red tile roofs and yards landscaped with yellow daisies and red and pink roses. The grass, even now in late summer, looks new and green.
The town is dotted with dozens of neighborhood watch signs that read “We Prevent Crime” and is home to dozens of law officers.
Homes start at more than $400,000. Donna Beck got a good deal when she bought her son a house here for $340,000, although it looks little like a bargain today. A blackened concrete slab and dark, gritty soil are all that remain at 26444 Brooks Circle. There’s a backyard gate that leads to and from nowhere, baby ficus trees along orphaned walls.
Three days after the siege, according to neighbors, there was also a lone woman--Beck’s girlfriend, Saori Seki--sifting through the ashes, then hurrying away in a borrowed car.
Later at Donna Beck’s house, Seki came to the front gate, leaving a barking dog inside with Beck’s grieving mother. Seki said she had only good things to say about her late fiance, but wasn’t ready to share them yet. “He is the best thing in my life,” she said.
Brooks Circle is a quarter-mile loop off Shakespeare Lane, a part of the Atessa tract at Stevenson Ranch. Stevenson is what is known in the home-building industry as a planned unit development. Such projects are examples of a belief that, by careful, almost scientific, attention to everything from lot size to paint colors, you can do more than build houses--you can create neighborhoods. These notions often amount to little more than a sales pitch.
Brooks Circle, though, was a planner’s dream come true. The neighborhood worked. When the houses went on the market two years ago, they filled up fast. Everybody was new to the neighborhood and, really, it was amazing how well they all got along. Even Beck.
Suspicions notwithstanding, Beck and his live-in girlfriend, Seki, were full-fledged members of the social club that was life on the circle. They were in the constant round of dinners, potlucks, backyard barbecues and swim parties.
All in all, Brooks Circle seemed a triumph of planning. It is safe to say, though, the events of Aug. 31 were not planned.
Beck’s mother’s purchase of the Brooks Circle house now seems like an overly ambitious social experiment gone very wrong. Planting the perpetual misfit in the midst of the life of the neighborhood worked for a while, but in the end the neighborhood sensed his alien presence and set about rejecting it.
Apart from its tragic ending, this last act of Beck’s life was in many respects a repeat of all that had preceded it, an endless loop of never fitting in.
‘Even Then He Was Strange’
Beck was the youngest child and only son of Robert and Donna Beck, a couple who married young and had three children before Robert completed law school at USC in 1966.
Robert’s father was a Los Angeles businessman who prospered sufficiently to buy a house in the moneyed precincts of Bundy Canyon in Brentwood, only to lose it in hard times. Robert Beck was a sole practitioner, mainly business and financial law. His practice apparently thrived; he brought the family house back into Beck hands, purchasing it in 1972 when James was 6.
James and his two sisters grew up in the Brentwood house. The neighborhood, in the upper part of the canyon, is a stretch of mainly low stucco and red brick ranch houses built in the 1950s and 1960s, and newer, larger homes of more recent construction. Overlooking the steep canyon from the west is the Getty Center.
Beck attended Palisades High.
“Even then he was strange,” said classmate Richard Alpert. “There was something very off about the guy. I was friends with him but he was kind of on the fringe of my group. He was kind of a loner. We worked together on the yearbook, but he was like, into snakes and guns. On numerous instances he’d tried to recruit myself and other people into vandalizing people he was upset with.
“He was one of those kids you couldn’t trust. He made up stories to get attention. . . . I remember he told people he had some terrible disease, like leukemia. . . . People felt really sorry for him until they found out it wasn’t true.”
James’ father’s hobbies included sports cars and guns. Donna’s was photography. James shared in all three. In high school, he took photographs for the yearbook. He also “talked about [guns] a lot,” Alpert said. “He was into Soldier of Fortune-type stuff.”
Another classmate recalled Beck, or Jimmy as he was called, once leaning over on the bus ride home and whispering conspiratorially. Look what I have, he said. In Beck’s backpack was a revolver.
“I don’t think he was any more or less” likely to turn violent than anyone else, the classmate said. “He was a high school kid. We were all awkward in our ways.”
After high school, Beck drifted through part-time jobs--selling sporting goods and pumping gas--and three junior colleges. He ended up at the Rio Hondo College police academy, graduating in 1987. A Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy who went through the academy with Beck, speaking on the condition that he not be identified, described Beck as “the kind of guy who’d probably had his lunch money stolen all his life. He should have never been given a badge.”
He didn’t have one for long. Beck was hired by the Arcadia Police Department but was let go after 14 months, before finishing his probation period.
Arcadia Police Chief Dave Hinig declined to specify why Beck was released, saying only he “was clearly not suited for our law enforcement venue.”
Beck applied at several area police agencies but was never hired. The closest he came to another law enforcement job was part-time work as a restaurant security guard.
Bouncing Rent Checks and Stealing Guns
After he washed out of Arcadia, Beck began to experience law enforcement from the other side.
He hung out at a Santa Monica gun shop, befriending the owner, Judson Swearingen. He told Swearingen and others he was a police officer. He said a recent parolee had threatened him and Swearingen let him move into a spare room.
“All the pieces were there because he knew the law enforcement industry, but the pieces didn’t fit real neat,” Swearingen said.
In fact, Beck needed a place to stay because he had been bouncing rent checks, then breaking into his landlady’s mailbox to steal the checks when they were returned from the bank.
He repaid Swearingen’s hospitality by stealing a pistol from his host and a credit card from an employee of the shop. Swearingen discovered the missing items in Beck’s bedroom.
“He betrayed my trust and I threw the book at him,” Swearingen said.
When Beck was arrested he had not only Swearingen’s pistol, but another missing from the shop and a shotgun stolen from the Arcadia Police Department. He pleaded no contest to felony charges and was sentenced to three years probation and 120 days in jail. Almost immediately, he began violating terms of the probation by missing meetings with his probation officer and failing to seek counseling.
A probation officer wrote that Beck’s “criminal behavior will most likely continue unless he receives appropriate punishment to deter him and psychological treatment to help him become less manipulative of others.”
During this period, Beck held a scattering of short-term jobs: a security guard, a laborer at an auto restoration shop and, he told law enforcement officials, a freelance reptile salesman. All the while, he continued to tell people he was a law officer. He drove a Chevrolet Caprice outfitted as a sheriff’s undercover car, with stolen radio equipment and weapons.
He took a part-time job in February 1991 as the girls track coach at Immaculate Heart High School in Hollywood. Maureen Rodriguez, athletic director at the school, later told authorities Beck turned out to be a nightmare. He told Rodriguez he was a deputy sheriff on undercover assignment and frequently carried a gun and handcuffs at track practice. Audio equipment and computers began to disappear from the school. Beck collected $10 apiece for sweat suits from the girls on the track team but never delivered the suits.
He arranged with two girls from the school to accompany him and his family as baby sitters on a planned trip to Tahiti. Before the trip could occur, Beck was arrested again. Twice.
The first time was for failing to repay $2,500 in cash he “borrowed” from an acquaintance after telling him he needed the money to complete an undercover drug buy.
He was reinstated on probation in this case but arrested again, charged with a residential burglary. At the time of this last arrest he was impersonating a UCLA student and working on campus, where, once again, equipment had been disappearing.
This time, his probation was revoked and he was sent to state prison, where he served two years and eight months. He worked as a photographer in the intake center. The year he was released, 1995, he filed a workers’ compensation claim against the state for chemical burns he suffered when he spilled photo development chemicals on his hands.
Parents’ Divorce Turns Acrimonious
When Beck was paroled, he moved back to Brentwood with his parents. Ellen King, a teacher who lives a few houses up Bundy Canyon, recalled that Beck walked two German shepherds around the neighborhood “at least twice a day.” He told her he imported dogs and trained them for police.
Her husband, James King, said, “I’d never suspect in a million years that he’d flip out like that.”
“He was very odd, honey,” said Ellen King, interrupting. “He was wound tight. You could tell. . . . He was always polite, but he was always angry.”
Not long after Beck returned home, his parents separated and eventually divorced. In a preliminary stipulation of property, they each cashed in $500,000 from one of three money market accounts.
Both drove top-of-the-line BMWs. They also owned two Ferraris, one--a 288 GTO--worth more than $200,000. No total value for the divorce is given, but Donna Beck said in a declaration that she and Robert Beck divided several million dollars in bonds.
The divorce was acrimonious. At one point, Donna Beck argued in court papers that she needed to keep the house because she physically could not move. She said she had serious back problems and was “in pain 24 hours a day and totally immobile and unable to care for myself.” Robert replied: “This factual assertion is irrelevant.”
The divorce papers contain numerous references to the father’s guns. Specific guns are not enumerated, but Robert did list “firearm accessories” he claimed his wife had failed to turn over. These included “manuals for eight handguns and 16 long guns,” holsters for a Sig Sauer P229, a Smith and Wesson Model 19, a Smith and Wesson Model 36, a Smith and Wesson Model 59, a Smith and Wesson Model 586, a Browning Hi-Power and a Walther PPK/S. He also listed as missing a “leather ‘inside the pants’ holster,” two leather rifle slings, two speed loaders, ammo belts, and three leather and sheepskin-lined handgun cases.
When James sided with his mother in the divorce, that effectively sealed the end of his relationship with his father. Years later, the father told Joseph Goldbaum, a private investigator, that he had nothing to do with either his ex-wife or his son.
At the time, Goldbaum was trying to find James Beck to serve a subpoena in connection with a dispute his mother had with a remodeling contractor.
The father “said words to the effect that they weren’t stable people. Neither of them were stable. He did not communicate with them,” Goldbaum said.
James Beck lived at his mother’s house for three years. He moved in late 1999 to a townhouse in Arcadia, where he is remembered as largely unremarkable except for his passionate attachment to his German shepherd, Fendi.
“One time I told him he loved animals more than people,” said Patty Howard, a neighbor. “He told me that was a compliment.”
Ted Zhang, a neighbor, said Beck’s dog was noisy and once bit a delivery person. Soon after, Beck moved without warning. He briefly returned to Brentwood.
In mid-1998, James Beck bought a German shepherd from Howard Rodriguez, owner of the California K-9 Academy in Burbank. Beck told kennel workers he was U.S. Marshal David Jackson. He drove to the academy in a late-model SUV equipped with police-style lights behind the front grille. He flashed a marshal’s badge. He usually wore a suit to the kennel, and had business cards that identified him as a federal agent.
Rodriguez said Beck walked and talked the part.
Beck demanded the best--a dog bred and raised in Germany, the type of animal that sells for as much as $15,000. Beck told Rodriguez he wanted the dog for protection and companionship for his wife and young daughter while he was on assignment.
Rodriguez remembers Beck as a good dog handler. He was thin and seemingly nonathletic, but agile. Beck told trainers his daughter was suffering from a blood disease, possibly leukemia. Because she was particularly susceptible to germs, he said he and his wife had to wear masks around the house, but often made the best of the situation by turning it into a big game.
Beck later dated the academy’s receptionist, Carrie Koga, according to police records. Koga declined to talk about the relationship, but told police they dated for 16 months, and discussed marriage, before she broke it off. He later confronted her at the academy, blaming one of her co-workers for interfering in the relationship. He shoved her nearly into the street, Koga told police, who were called to the scene. Beck was gone by the time they arrived and she obtained a temporary restraining order against him.
Beck later began a relationship with Saori Seki, a part-time sushi chef.
All the while, he told almost everyone he worked in law enforcement. Some people believed him to be a marshal; others thought he was a police officer or sheriff’s deputy. Still others were told he was an investigator for the district attorney. Seki believed he was a lawyer.
Beck’s Neighbors Become Suspicious
When the Brooks Circle women began voicing their concerns of James Beck not everybody wanted to hear it. Beck had made friends. So what if he told a few whoppers?
Lynda Newman had no suspicions about Beck, a regular at their backyard dinners and pool parties. He kept an immaculate house. How bad could a man with Mickey and Pluto in his downstairs office be? It was true, the stuffed animals, like many other things connected to Beck, were a little off. They were all white, a fact Beck explained away saying he got them from a friend who worked on a stuffed animal assembly line. The white ones fell off the line before the dye vats, he said.
A few weeks after the girls’ night rumblings, she and her husband, Mike, were invited to a meeting of neighborhood families concerned that Beck might be a child molester.
“He’s not what you think he is,” she recalled them telling her.
Worried, the Newmans called authorities to see if Beck was a known child molester. He was not. They wondered about other explanations for his oddness. Maybe he was involved in a secret operation that, for security reasons, would prevent him from disclosing his true occupation.
“We hoped that’s what it was,” she said.
A rift opened in the neighborhood. Even though Newman did not believe Beck was a molester, she was furious with the woman for not telling her sooner about their concerns. She had children.
The Newmans later noticed that Beck was under surveillance. “The jerks parked their vans with periscopes in front of my house,” Lynda Newman said. “It was so obvious they were watching him. He must have known.”
The Newmans never said anything to Beck. Nor did he speak to them about the surveillance. What could he have said? That he had illegally built a small arsenal at the house? That he had been buying thousands of dollars worth of high-powered ammunition for months? That if they came for him, they better be prepared for a fight because he wasn’t going anywhere?
This last assertion, made by Beck to his mother by telephone after law officers descended on his house a week ago Friday, was fundamentally different from much of what James Allen Beck had ever said. It turned out to be finally, lamentably, oh too true.
Times staff writers Anna Gorman, Ted Rohrlich, Michael Krikorian, Michael Finnegan, Jose Cardenas, Jean Guccione, Carol Chambers, Caitlin Liu, Patricia Ward Biederman, Massie Ritsch, Richard Marosi, Andrew Blankstein and Sue Fox contributed to this story.