Voices: Bethany Webb

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“Ten years seem so long, but when I think about the shooting, about losing Laura, it seems both like it happened yesterday and a million years ago.”

On Tuesday, Bethany Webb and other victims’ family members gathered at a memorial service in Seal Beach to remember the eight people killed 10 years ago in the worst mass shooting in Orange County history.

Webb’s sister, Laura, was killed, and her mother was wounded when Scott Dekraai walked into the Meritage Salon in Seal Beach on October 12, 2011, and shot nine people, killing eight and injuring one. One of those killed was Laura, the one who was wounded was Beth and Laura’s mother, Hattie Stretz.

“October 12, or even just this time of year, Laura’s birthday is October 1, is another reminder of how much we lost that day. I lost my sister, and my mom lost her child. It was devastating. And it wasn’t just Laura; we lost dear friends too. Three women at Laura’s wedding just the previous Memorial Day were among those lying on the salon floor just four months later,” Webb says.

Dekraai, who pleaded guilty to the killings, was involved in a custody dispute with his ex-wife, Michelle Fournier, who worked at the shop, and was one of those killed. He told police the other eight he shot were “collateral damage.”

Despite his confession and guilty plea, then-Orange County District Tony Rackauckas decided to seek the death penalty. Webb had always been opposed to the death penalty, and even after it became a deeply personal issue, her opposition didn’t waver. As she said at the time in opposing Rackauckas’s decision, “I want to be better than him [Dekraai}. We are not the same person. He’s not going to put hate in my heart. If he ever takes responsibility for what he did, understands the devastation he caused, feels remorse, and lives for a long time with the realization of what he did, the punishment of life would be so much worse.”

Family members were divided on the issue, Rackauckas persisted, and the case dragged on.

But Orange County Public Defender Scott Sanders uncovered evidence that prosecutors and deputies had used a jailhouse informant to gather evidence against Dekraai, even after he had an attorney. Also revealed was that the DA’s and sheriff’s departments obstructed the investigation by failing to turn over evidence. When called to testify about the informant program, they pleaded their Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate themselves.

As a result, the presiding judge removed the DA’s office from the trial’s penalty phase and assigned it to then-Attorney General Kamala Harris. Harris’s office appealed the ruling and lost. Dekraai’s lawyers argued that the prosecutors’ misconduct called for the death penalty to be ruled out because the court couldn’t trust them to turn over evidence that would help the defense. They asked for Dekraai to be sentenced to eight life terms without the possibility of parole.

The judge agreed. Six years after it began, in September 2017, the trial ended when Judge Thomas Goethals told Dekraai that, “The gates of Hell flew open and you emerged as the face of evil in this community,” and sentenced him to eight terms of life in prison without parole, with an additional 232 years to life for attempted murder and other charges

“It was so freeing,” Webb said at the time. And now, looking back, she says, “Even then, I feel like I had started to turn a corner on letting the hatred go.” She was called for jury duty recently and went back to the courthouse for the first time since the sentencing. “I walked up to that building I spent six years in, and it blindsided me. It gut-punched me, brought back six years of sitting there and seeing him. It is so much more healing for me to not have to think of appeals and court dates. If you don’t want the rest of your life to be swallowed up in hate and vengeance, and I did not, and I knew that early on, even in the first year, then this was the best outcome.”

Her mother, who was shot in the chest, is 83 now and agrees, Webb says. She is in remission from breast cancer and is doing well. She has found the same peace in not spending every day seeing and thinking about the man who killed her daughter and tried to kill her. “I call her the “unsinkable Hattie Stretz,” Webb says.

“I think that we as a society have to stop hating,” she says. We have to stop thinking that violence solves anything. The death penalty teaches that you can take the life of someone who isn’t a threat to you. We’re better than that. That’s why I’m honored to be part of Death Penalty Focus (She is on the board.). We can show that we don’t have to do that. That’s how I think, and it makes this all bearable. I do it for her, for Laura, and my children and family. It means that Laura didn’t just die.”

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