The heavily armed gunman who police say strolled into a Seal Beach beauty salon Wednesday afternoon and sprayed the room with bullets—killing eight and wounding one—was a doting dad and nice guy who must have snapped, neighbors said.
“I just waved at him this morning on my way to work, and he seemed fine,” said suspect ’s next-door neighbor Stephanie Malchow. “When I came home, I didn’t know what had happened until I saw police digging through our trash.”
But , an endearing boat captain who began spiraling downward after a gruesome work accident four years ago. A bitter custody feud with his second ex-wife, Michelle, a stylist at the salon, might have pushed him over the edge, they said.
Terror in the Salon
Dressed in body armor and carrying an arsenal of weapons, Dekraai allegedly entered , in the 500 block of Pacific Coast Highway, around 1:20 p.m. Wednesday and gunned down nine people, including his ex, with a pistol.
"We're not sure at this time if he shot from the entrance or if people were shot as they ran seeking shelter, but they were shot all over the salon," Seal Beach police Sgt. Steve Bowles said.
One employee, Kathy McGhee, was working in a back room when the commotion began, according to her husband, Dave McGhee. A customer grabbed her and locked the door behind them, McGhee said. Moments later, someone tried to open the door from the outside, but didn't get in, he said.
She called 911 and then her husband.
Police arrived a minute later, in time to follow a white pickup truck believed to be the suspect's.
Inside the salon, authorities found six people dead, including owner Randy Fannin. Three others—two men and a woman—were rushed to Long Beach Memorial Hospital. One of the wounded was found in a nearby car with the passenger window shot out.
Two of the wounded have since died, making this the worst mass slaying in Orange County history, surpassing a 1976 shooting in the library of Cal State Fullerton.
The final victim, 73-year-old Hattie Stretz of Seal Beach, still clung to life in critical condition Thursday. Stretz's daughter was among those who perished in the hail of bullets, friend Dean Grose said.
Others were more fortunate.
Jeannie Nagle, a former Lakewood High School classmate of three of the victims, told K-CAL9 that some people in the salon laid on the ground and pretended to be dead to escape the gunfire.
Custody Dispute Cited as Motive
Police said the motive was under investigation, but McGhee and others said DeKraai had recently lost a custody battle with ex-wife Michelle Fournier. Court records show Dekraai filed for divorce in March 2007 in Los Angeles Superior Court.
(Dekraai's first marriage, to Kristen Dekraai, apparently ended in 1999, records show.)
After the shooting, Nagle said Dekraai warned Michelle he would do something like this. Nagle described him as unstable.
Neighbor Malchow, however, had a different take.
It’s hard to reconcile the image of Orange County’s worst mass murder with the friendly neighbor who shared gardening tips and plants, gave birthday gifts to newborns and joined the Neighborhood Watch program, said Malchow.
“I don’t want people to think he is just an evil monster. He’s a nice guy, but he must have snapped,” Malchow said. “If he was in a custody dispute, that would explain why he snapped. He loves his little boy more than anything else in the world.”
Dekraai doted on his son, playing with him in the front yard and worrying when the boy went to stay with his mother. Dekraai complained about her to Malchow. He said he didn’t trust her parenting, and complained that she did things like drop their son off at school too early in the morning, Malchow said.
“His son is such a sweet little boy and an innocent in all this. It’s so sad to think that he is going to suffer the most out of everyone. He is just a poor kid, not even 9, and his family is gone from him,” said Malchow. “He’ll never be able to get far enough away from all this. He’ll be that kid at school who all the kids point at and say, 'That’s the kid whose dad did that horrible thing.' ”
DeKraai recently married his third wife, Mindy, in the backyard of their Huntington Beach home and invited all the neighbors. After moving into the neighborhood, the couple quickly became popular for their thoughtful gestures, said Malchow. When DeKraai went fishing, he shared his catch with neighbors. When Malchow left her garage door open, DeKraai knocked on her door and pointed it out, warning her about burglars. The succulents lining Malchow’s house are from cuttings that DeKraai shared.
“I can’t make sense out of any of this,” said Malchow. “I still think he is a nice guy, but just when you think you know someone, this happens.”
Suspect In Custody
Shortly after the salon rampage, DeKraai was arrested about a half mile away, at Central Avenue and 12th Street. A witness who videotaped the arrest on her cell phone camera told K-CAL9 the suspect cooperated and told officers there were guns in the car and that he couldn’t get down on his knees because of a prosthetic in his leg.
Another bystander said guns were strapped to the DeKraai's body and an arsenal weapons was strewn across the floorboard of his truck.
Hours later, investigators were still combing through the vehicle, which bore a Raiders football sticker on the tailgate and a Tea Party license plate frame on the front bumper.
Authorities said they weren't sure how many weapons were used in the shooting.
"Obviously a crime of this magnitude is something that Seal Beach is not familiar with," Sgt. Bowles said. "This could be one of our greatest tragedies, and it has had a tremendous effect on our small community.”
He added, "On behalf of the Seal Beach Police Department we want to express our condolences to all affected by this tragedy. ... I’d like to assure the community of Seal Beach that the Police Department is working very hard, aggressively and thoroughly to investigate the shooting.”
'Things Like This Don't Happen Here'
Strangely, the shooting took place not far from a fake crime scene set up for a TV taping of CSI: Miami.
The real crime scene quickly drew a big crowd.
"I was sitting on the beach when I heard sirens so I ran to see what was happening," said Marc Loopesko, who lives down the street from the salon.
About 100 residents, some dressed for the beach and others who raced over from work, stood around the block where news vans mixed with fire trucks. Seal Beach fire engine 44, arriving from three blocks away, was first on the scene to treat victims.
The chaos was compounded by the fact there are at least three salons in the shopping center at PCH and Fifth Street. Several people frantically walked around the roped-off crime scene trying to find out if their loved ones were alive.
Seal Beach resident Gary Takacs watched police flood into the area as he was heading out to an appointment.
“I saw police were swarming in, and I knew something big was happening," he said. "My wife knows the owners very well. Everyone around here knows everyone. We are really a tight community—we are all friends and family, and I know we are going to be hurting. It’s a sleepy little town, and things like this don’t happen—except it did happen. It just doesn’t seem true."
On Wednesday evening, relatives and friends of the victims were being counseled at the Mary Wilson Library downtown. Fernando Serna, who works at a nearby auto shop and had been observing the post-shooting aftermath, said it was "a pretty sad sight" when family members started arriving at the library.
Elsewhere, a prayer meeting was held at SeaCoast Church.
By Thursday morning, the crime scene tape was down and black plastic was draped across the salon windows. A makeshift memorial was set up outside the salon's front door. In addition to flowers, two handwritten poems were left, one titled "The Day After" and another called "Eight Souls."
TV cameras and reporters were everywhere. One teary-eyed couple dropped off flowers by the salon, then hurried away.
News and photos from the day after Orange County's worst mass killing.
—Patch staff writers Nancy Wride and Jenna Chandler contributed to this report.