Seal Beach struggles with how to memorialize slaying victims

The wall of flowers and messages that grew outside the Seal Beach salon in the days after the shooting had long been taken down. Now, workers are gutting the place, clearing away the last visible reminders of the day a gunman walked in and started shooting, killing eight people whose lives intersected one afternoon in October.

In many ways, life in the beachside city has regained its small-town vibe: Retired couples window-shop along Main Street, surfer dudes hang out on the sidewalk and young moms get together for lunch, going through the day at the same pace as the soft sea breeze.

But almost six months after the Salon Meritage shooting, the community is beginning to wrestle with the difficult task of how best to remember the town’s darkest day. It’s a delicate balancing act for many: memorializing the victims without dwelling on the carnage or the man accused of perpetrating it.

In a town where most residents seem to have but a few degrees of separation from one of the victims, officials said there has been an outcry for a memorial — something to remember the victims and underscore the weeks of vigils and fundraisers that reinforced what a tight-knit community this is.

“It means we’re moving forward,” said Seth Eaker, a former Chamber of Commerce president and owner of a consulting business. “We will not be defined by this tragedy but, in part, by the response.”

The broad-daylight shooting at the salon was the deadliest mass killing in county history, a bloodbath of a crime in which customers and stylists alike were shot to death. The challenge, Eaker said, is to avoid creating a memorial that puts a black mark on the city’s otherwise sunny history.

Many are careful to avoid words like “build” or “erect,” and certainly “monument,” when they discuss where such a memorial should go and what it should look like.

“We don’t want to make this guy a hero,” City Councilwoman Ellery Deaton said of Scott Dekraai, the man indicted earlier this year for murder in the slayings of his ex-wife, Michelle Fournier, and seven others in or near the Salon Meritage. The former couple were involved in a court dispute over custody of their son.

“I want it to be discreet,” Deaton said of the tribute. “I want it to be respectful, and I want it to remember the victims.”

As the city has begun the process to commemorate the victims, the focus has centered on creating something low-key and reflective.

“We’re healing and we’re trying to ... not focus on the tragedy element of it, the horror, but the people and how we bound together as a community,” said Laura Ellsworth, a bookkeeper who has lived in Seal Beach for 20 years.

Patty Sesler, owner of Patty’s Place, a local hangout next to the Salon Meritage, said a memorial would be especially helpful to the victims’ family members, some of whom are still regulars at her restaurant. “They need a place to go.”

So far, a spot tucked away at the oceanside Eisenhower Park has emerged as the preferred location, with a walkway and benches near the water. The City Council is expected to approve the location and plans for the memorial in June, and could begin construction by the end of the year.

The victims’ families have asked that any memorial not be near the shooting site, and that there not be any commemorations marking the anniversary of the shooting.

“My mom needs a place to reflect and take her grandkids and explain things to them,” said Paul Caouette, whose 64-year-old father, David, was gunned down in the salon parking lot.

“It’s a place to go and think about Dad,” he said. “It’s about everyone involved — the firefighters and the first responders — and how everyone came together. I don’t think it’s just about the families.... Everyone deserves to have a place where they can have a moment to themselves.”

Although most in the city have been careful to defer to the families, there’s a concern among some that the memorial could be too pronounced. If it’s too close to the pier — a landmark as central to Seal Beach’s identity as the sunshine and the surf itself – it could create the impression that the shooting is a part of the city’s legacy.

“I’d rather have the city known as a small town where people get along with each other, as opposed to, ‘Seal Beach is famous because some person went ahead and shot a bunch of people,’” said Charles Antos, a 40-year resident who twice served as mayor.

Antos said he would rather have a low-profile memorial near the shopping center where the shooting occurred, to not “publicize the city of Seal Beach as a place for a tragedy.”

“People who don’t know will ask,” he said.

Scott Belshe, a first responder to the shooting, said if the memorial were near the pier, he would see it every day, rekindling memories that he has tried to repress. “I don’t allow myself to think about all the details and everything,” the 22-year veteran of the city’s Fire Department said.

Wherever the memorial is planted, Butch Fournier said he’d be grateful to have a tranquil space to remember his sister, Michelle.

He has found himself returning to the salon in the months since her death and was there as recently as a couple of weeks ago, even as it was under construction to possibly be reopened.

“It’s hard for me,” he said. “But something keeps bringing me there.”

Fournier, 48, said a permanent memorial would allow him to have a more positive place to reminisce.

The decision, however, is months away, so he has settled on a tribute of his own. He plans to have his sister’s portrait inked on his forearm, a memorial that will always be with him.