On an October morning, Scott Dekraai strapped on a bulletproof vest, armed himself with three semiautomatic handguns and stalked into the tiny hair salon where his ex-wife worked, shooting as he walked from station to station.
When he was done, he walked toward his car — pausing long enough to reach toward the window of a parked Range Rover and shoot the driver.
For 21/2 years, the families of the eight people killed in the shooting have waited for the accused killer to go on trial in Orange County’s bloodiest mass killing. On Friday, Dekraai, 44, ended a painful chapter in the long wait by pleading guilty to eight counts of first-degree murder, setting the stage for a hearing to determine whether he should be put to death.
Family members and friends sobbed, dabbed at their eyes and stared toward the ceiling, fighting tears as the name of each victim was read aloud in court — each name followed by a guilty plea from Dekraai.
Dozens of people packed the 11th-floor Santa Ana courtroom for the hearing, many of them friends and family of the victims of the mass killing in Seal Beach. Shackled and dressed in an orange jail uniform, Dekraai showed little emotion as he answered the judge’s questions.
“After today you will not be an alleged killer anymore,” said Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals. “You will be a convicted murderer; do you understand that?”
“That’s very clear, Your Honor,” Dekraai said.
“It’s the right thing to do, Your Honor,” Dekraai said, when asked by Goethals whether pleading guilty was in his best interest.
Dekraai was arrested on Oct. 12, 2011, as he drove from the Salon Meritage, and police say he quickly confessed. Authorities said the bloody assault was fomented by a bitter custody battle between Dekraai and his ex-wife over their 8-year-old son. His former wife, Michelle Fournier, 48, was among those who died.
In addition to killing Fournier, Dekraai pleaded guilty to fatally shooting salon owner Randy Fannin, 62; Lucia Kondas, 65; Michele Fast, 47; Victoria Buzzo, 54; Laura Elody, 46; Christy Wilson, 47; and David Caouette, the 64-year-old man who was shot as he sat in his car.
Hattie Stretz, who was at the shop to visit Elody, her daughter, was shot but survived.
Public defender Scott Sanders said Dekraai decided to plead guilty because he thought it was the right thing to do, rather than let the case drag on.
“In his mind, the guilty plea will allow those affected by his actions the certainty that he will, at a minimum, spend the rest of his life in prison,” Sanders said.
“He regrets that there are some people who may never accept his explanation for pleading guilty,” Sanders said. “However, he understands that this is a consequence of his actions and the crimes he committed.”
Dekraai is now eligible to be sent to death row. The punishment phase of his trial is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 18. But the judge has not ruled on a motion to dismiss the death penalty.
Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said he would aggressively pursue the death penalty.
“This is a horrendous case; this is a multiple murder case against the innocent and defenseless victims,” Rackauckas said. “The only thing that might even approach justice in a case like this is for us to seek the death penalty.”
Outside the courtroom, Christy Wilson’s widower said he’d rather see Dekraai sentenced to life and forced to live among violent felons in prison.
“I would like to see him fight for his life,” said Paul Wilson, who wore a pin with his wife’s image and carried a poster with her picture from a 2010 Mother’s Day celebration.
Wilson didn’t believe Dekraai’s decision to plead guilty was born of compassion.
“This is not a compassionate man, or else I wouldn’t be standing here today,” Wilson said. “This is a coward.”
Bethany Webb, Laura Elody’s sister, said she’d also prefer to have Dekraai doomed to spending his life in prison.
“I don’t want to be him — I don’t want to be a murderer,” said Webb. “I’d like him to find a more ‘life for a life’ sort of demise” in prison.
But Craig Burke, Fournier’s brother, said he’d rather see Dekraai sentenced to die. He said Friday’s guilty pleas still have not brought closure.
“I wake up to this every day,” he said. “We’re going to live with this our whole lives; it’s never going to change.”