Town’s sense of safety is pierced
Mike Dicorato was sitting on the Seal Beach pier with his daughter Tuesday, enjoying the quiet of a fall afternoon. His neighbor, the editor of the local newspaper, approached with a question for his weekly Sidewalk Talk feature.
“Do you feel safe where you live?” he asked.
Dicorato, 57, thought for a moment.
“Physically, yes,” he said. “But you can’t leave anything unlocked or it will be gone.”
He’d had a couple of beach chairs stolen from his alley.
The following afternoon, Seal Beach witnessed the deadliest shooting in Orange County history. A gunman walked into the crowded Salon Meritage on Pacific Coast Highway and opened fire, killing eight people and critically injuring another.
Sent to press before the shooting, the Seal Beach Sun landed at local businesses Thursday morning with a front-page photo about the weekend kite festival. All four people interviewed in the Sidewalk Talk piece said they felt safe. One woman who had moved from Seal Beach to Huntington Beach said: “Yes. But I felt safer when I lived in Seal Beach.”
This could have been cruel irony. But even the morning after the deadly rampage, residents still felt safe.
Children still rode the squeaky swings at the playground by the pier. Customers at Bogart’s Coffeehouse still hunkered over their laptops and lattes. Aging dudes in tank tops and flip-flops still wheeled around town on their beach cruisers. And fishermen dropped their lines into water so glass-smooth that it looked as if you could walk to Catalina.
The balmy day brought an eerie dissonance between the horror of what had happened and the knowledge that their little beach town did not give rise to it.
“Seal Beach is Seal Beach,” said resident Henry Braun, 57, as if nothing more needed to be said. “It’s quiet. It’s like a small town in the Midwest. It’s safe. It’s still safe. It just happened here, but it doesn’t belong to us.”
This is not to say that people were not distraught. Even as the town’s laid-back rhythm was resuming, they were planning a candlelight vigil at the salon.
The Old Town section of Seal Beach, where the shooting occurred, is a tight community of 9,000. People know each other. They talk on the sidewalk, on the pier and in the hardware store, coffee shops, surf shops, bars and well over a dozen hair and nail salons. By mid-morning, they were hearing a few of the names of those who had been in the salon.
“Everyone is waiting,” said John Domingue, 56, a street performer meeting friends on the pier. “Everyone is going to know someone in there.”
“I feel like right now I’m just waiting for the shoe to drop,” said JoAnn Adams, owner of Bogart’s. “Maybe they were some of my customers. It’s just very surreal today. It almost feels like the day after 9/11, the same feeling, like we’re just walking through the motions.”
But she did not think it would change the personality of Seal Beach. Residents will still flock to the annual fish fry, the car show, the pancake breakfast and the kite fest.
“I think people see this as a random event,” she said.
About 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, the attacker stormed into the salon. Michelle Fournier, the former wife of the suspect, Scott Dekraai of Huntington Beach, worked there. The two, who had lived for years in Seal Beach, were in a bitter custody dispute over their 8-year-old son. The gunman began shooting indiscriminately; victims fell to the floor, and others tried to escape. Fournier was among the dead.
In the city of 24,000, the last homicide was in 2004.
“The locals for years have called this Mayberry by the sea,” Domingue said. “Why do we even have police? The joke was they got the coolest gig in town.”
Salon Meritage was not just a business; owned by Randy Fannin, who was killed Wednesday, it was an extended family, a microcosm of its community.
Pam Serdutz, a 67-year-old schoolteacher, paced nervously outside of the door, desperate to know whether her favorite stylist was among the victims.
“I can’t stand it, not knowing whether Gordon survived or not,” she said, pinching her forehead to not cry. Gordon Gallego had cut her hair for years.
“I called his home phone, but his message machine is full. I just know something happened to him.” (Gallego was not on the list of victims later released by police.)
Serdutz paced and played back memories in her head.
“Let me tell you how Gordon became an important part of the life of my family,” she started.
She turned and sobbed, then collected herself. “Once 15 years ago, my 17-year-old daughter desperately needed her hair done for prom night; the woman who usually did her hair was busy.
“We walked in here for the first time cold, off the street and sobbing. It was only five hours before the prom. Gordon told another stylist to take the client he was working with ... and then he turned to me and said: ‘Mom, give us two hours. This little girl is going to the prom, and I’m going to see to it.’”
They’ve been going to him ever since.
She said Gallego threw great parties for the other stylists and always invited clients to join them.
Clients and residents came throughout the day to leave flowers and poems and candles by the door. Many turned around when they saw the gaggle of photographers and cameramen they had to face. This type of scene, sadly common in so many parts of Southern California, was new here.
Mary Stearns, 53, lit a candle in the morning and set it by the entrance and softly said, “I miss you, Randy.”
She stepped back and simply stared at the salon, its windows covered with black bags to keep people from ogling the crime scene. The door was still advertising Brazilian blowouts.
“Randy loved full-bodied Cabernets,” she said. She recently bought a bottle of red wine for him while on vacation in Australia. “I delivered it on Saturday. He was so happy about that. I hope he got to drink it.”
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Snapshot of those killed
Eight people were killed Wednesday when a gunman opened fire at a Seal Beach beauty salon, the deadliest shooting in Orange County history:
Michelle Marie Fournier, 48, a licensed cosmetologist and stylist at Salon Meritage, the scene of the shooting. She was formerly married to the suspected shooter, Scott Dekraai. Lived in Los Alamitos.
Laura Lee Elody, 46, a stylist at the salon. She lived in Huntington Beach. Her mother, Hattie Stretz, 73, is the lone shooting victim to survive.
Randy Lee Fannin, 63, owner of Salon Meritage. He and his wife had operated the business for about a decade; customers said they were the perfect “tag team” partners. Lived in Murrieta.
Michelle Daschback Fast, a salon employee whose husband is a team manager with the Beach Futbol Club. Her daughter is a player on the soccer team. She lived in Seal Beach.
Christy Lynn Wilson, a salon employee and mother of three. A Cerritos resident who made jewelry and paddleboarded in her spare time. She was one of Fournier’s close friends.
Victoria Ann Buzzo, 54, a stylist who lived in Laguna Beach with her husband.
David Caouette, 64, a retired car salesman and ardent off-roader who was shot outside the salon in his parked Land Rover. Friends said he was probably at the popular shopping center where the salon is located to get lunch. He lived in Seal Beach.
Lucia Bernice Kondas, 65, a Huntington Beach resident.