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Driver in Fatal Crash Described as Troubled

Accident: Fellow students say the UC Santa Barbara freshman, arrested in deaths of four people, often acted strangely.

February 26, 2001|JOE MOZINGO and JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ISLA VISTA, Calif. — Less than a month after they met last fall, UC Santa Barbara freshman David Attias sent a letter to a female classmate.

"You are my best friend that I have ever had, and I cannot imagine ever making a better one," Attias wrote to Sarahfrances Smith-Withey. "I have known people that care about me, but no people that care about me enough to consciously inspire me to change my problems and become a better person."

On Friday night, Attias' troubles--apparent to some of the students who knew him--were visited tragically on the entire school. Driving a black Saab bought by his Hollywood director father, the 18-year-old mowed down five young people walking on a residential street in the Isla Vista neighborhood next to campus, authorities say. Four died and a fifth was critically injured.

Attias, a freshman from Santa Monica, was held without bail at Santa Barbara County Jail on charges of vehicular homicide. The extent of Attias' difficulties may be better known this week, when sheriff's investigators hope to complete blood tests to determine whether he took alcohol or drugs before the Friday night tragedy. A sheriff's spokesman at the scene said Attias displayed signs of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

He is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday.

On campus, as student leaders and university administrators put together a week of memorials, questions emerged about Attias' behavior in recent months, and the response of his fellow students.

At the 10-story Francisco Torres building, a private dormitory where Attias lived on the seventh floor, neighbors recounted conversations with the young man with frantically darting eyes. His classmates said there were warning signs:

He barged into rooms. He followed people into elevators for the companionship. He would invite himself into the meals of others at the cafeteria.

One night just two weeks ago, he knocked on the door of Zack Chancer's and Rusty Foxe's suite and asked for a baseball bat. Someone had taken money from him, Attias said, and he wanted to settle the score. "He talked about the most random things," said Chancer, 19, whose suite mates did all they could to avoid him. "He was always fidgeting. He looked like he was kind of wacked out."

Although strange, the exchanges were usually polite. One student advised him to get counseling, but there is so far no indication that his behavior was reported to university authorities or police. Yonie Harris, dean of students, said no one had approached her office about Attias. "The first time I heard his name was in connection with this incident," she said.

Attias also was little known in his family's Santa Monica neighborhood. The older of two, Attias lived with his parents in a three-bedroom house on 23rd Street. A college friend who had dinner with the Attias family said David Attias idolized his father, Daniel Attias, a director for critically acclaimed TV series such as "Ally McBeal" and "The Sopranos."

"This is a terrible tragedy," said his grandmother, Elaine Attias, who is active with a human rights group. "We wish the media and other people would stop calling." Other than that his family members would not comment. And efforts to reach his attorney were unsuccessful.

Attias' sister, Rachel, went to boarding school in Connecticut, but David, for the most part, stayed closer to home. He graduated from Concord High School, a little-known private school run by a mother and daughter and tucked into an office building on Wilshire Boulevard. Concord, with a total enrollment of 85, has more than its share of Hollywood children, who gravitate to the small, nurturing environment.

Posted on the front door Sunday were a list of last year's 21 seniors and all the colleges to which they were accepted. Attias got into 12 schools, all in the West, from Arizona State to the University of San Francisco.

"He was very articulate and it showed in his writing," said Jennifer Hill, 18, who had a writing class with him at UC Santa Barbara. Attias perked up when the instructor showed Hitchcock movies, and talked of studying film. "When our teacher would ask questions about the film, he would always have a good response."

Smith-Withey said he would constantly visit, talking wildly and sometimes asking for drugs. In November, he told her he had crashed a Volvo, but soon had a new Saab. "He meant well," she said. "He was and still is so starved for physical and emotional attention."

After the Christmas break, students said, he talked constantly about rave parties and played techno music so loud his roommate wanted him to move out. Krysti Wilson, 19, said one day he started telling her and a few other students "an elaborate story" of how he had been raped by a girl. Margaret Tontz, 18, another dorm mate, said he talked about having a falling out with his family.

"He was just really jumpy, not comfortable," said Adriana Lopez, 18, who lived across the hall.

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