The man behind the worst mass murder in Orange County history will not face the death penalty.
A Superior Court judge ruled Friday that execution should be taken off the table for 47-year-old Scott Dekraai, who pleaded guilty to killing eight people in the October 2011 mass shooting at a Seal Beach Salon.
Dekraai pleaded guilty in May 2014, so the only issue to resolve is his punishment. Judge Thomas Goethals' ruling, the result of a third round of evidentiary hearings stemming from widespread abuses of a jailhouse informant program, likely means a case mired in legal limbo will finally come to an end with the killer's sentencing.
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Dekraii was scheduled for a Sept. 22 sentencing.
Because Dekraai pleaded guilty, there would be no more appeals if he is sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. It would also end legal proceedings regarding allegations of abuses of the jailhouse informant program that Dekraai's attorney has pursued for the past several years.
In January 2014, defense attorneys filed a 500-plus-page motion alleging widespread misconduct in the use of jailhouse informants to obtain information to help investigators.
Goethals removed execution as a sentencing option because he determined law enforcement could not guarantee a fair trial in the penalty phase. Dekraai's attorney, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, argued that his client cannot trust the county to turn over all favorable evidence, so he could never be sure he'll ever get a fair hearing.
The Orange County Sheriff's Department issued a statement after the ruling.
"We are disappointed by today's ruling. The facts in this case clearly supported a death penalty verdict," the statement said. "On October 12, 2011, Scott Dekraai executed and confessed to the deadliest shooting in the history of Orange County, long before he was booked into the Orange County Jail. Notwithstanding the issues that were raised by the Court's ruling, we believe the defendant would have received a fair trial during the penalty phase of the criminal proceedings. The decision to remove the death penalty rests at the feet of Judge Goethals and nobody else."
The Orange County District Attorney's Office also expressed disappointment in the ruling.
"Given the pattern and tenor of his previous rulings, Judge Goethals' decision does not come as a surprise," the statement said. "In 2014, the OCDA obtained a guilty plea, ensuring Dekraai would at a minimum be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. The only question remaining was whether he should receive the death penalty for his repugnant, callous, and despicable acts committed while exacting revenge against his ex-wife.
"Dekraai planned and murdered eight, nearly nine innocent people, at the salon where his ex-wife worked, so she would experience the terror and horror of seeing her friends and clients murdered. Whether some members of the Orange County Sheriff's Department failed to produce tangential information in a timely manner has nothing to do with what Dekraai did and the fact that Dekraai deserves the death penalty. The AG made an independent decision to seek the death penalty when the OCDA was recused and should be able to proceed forward because Dekraai would have received a fair trial."
Legal delays mounted for the victims' families as allegations that deputies withheld evidence and used jailhouse informants to illegally obtain confessions from inmates were investigated. A family member of two of Scott Dekraai's victims appealed to state prosecutors earlier this year to drop the death penalty. Bethany Webb made her appeal to officials from the Attorney General's Office following a hearing in Dekraai's case. Her sister, Laura Webb Elody, was among those killed in the 2011 deadly ambush at a Seal Beach beauty salon, which their mother, Hattie Stretz, survived.
Webb said 90 to 95 percent of the victims' families wanted the attorney general to stop pursuing the ultimate punishment for Dekraai.
"We don't want to come here anymore," Webb said. "I'm begging the judge to realize how broken this is and to set us free."
Webb also told Goethals during the hearing that she appealed to state prosecutors prior an announcement that they will continue to pursue capital punishment for Dekraai. She said she had asked that they take the death penalty off the table and let the defendant be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Dekraai had an argument with his ex-wife, Michelle Marie Fournier, over the phone before he went on his deadly rampage against her and the other victims at the Salon Meritage on Oct. 12, 2011. He drove to the salon at 500 Pacific Coast Highway about 1:20 p.m., walked up to his 48-year-old ex-wife -- with whom he was embroiled in a child support dispute -- and shot her multiple times.
After he gunned down Fournier, he turned his gun on 47-year-old Christy Wilson because she had testified against him in a child support hearing.
The shop's owner, 62-year-old Randy Lee Fannin, ran up to try to stop him with a pair of scissors, so Dekraai opened fire and killed him, as well, then started shooting random people inside the salon.
Elody, 46, Victoria Ann Buzzo, 54, Lucia Berniece Kondas, 65, and Michele Dashbach Fast, 47, died at the scene.
Dekraai gunned down his last victim, 64-year-old David Caouette, as the victim sat in his Range Rover, which was parked next to the gunman's vehicle outside the salon. Dekraai told investigators he thought Caouette was an off-duty or undercover police officer.