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Amid Pain and Loss, a Blank Spot

Tragedy: Brain-injured survivor makes strong recovery but still can't recall Isla Vista crash.

April 01, 2002|JOHN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The polite, accommodating man at the center of one of the grimmer tragedies to strike a California college community in recent years is the one man who can't recall it.

And maybe that's the only mercy to emerge from the horror of Feb. 23, 2001, when a careening car ran down five people in the Isla Vista neighborhood adjacent to UC Santa Barbara.

"The last thing I remember before the accident was the weekend before. I called Ruthie, and we had dinner," said Bert Levy, 28. His sister, Ruth, died in the tragedy along with his best friend from high school, Elie Israel.

Levy was sitting in his father's high-rise apartment, overlooking San Francisco's busy financial district. Trim and clear-eyed, he looked like any other young man on the go in this energetic metropolis.

But when he rolled up his blue jeans, he revealed a patchwork of ugly scars resembling Martian canals. The deepest scar, however, is one that can't be seen. The brain injury he suffered in the accident not only stole a chunk of his memory but required him to go through months of therapy to learn how to walk and talk again.

His next memory after the dinner with his sister is waking up in a hospital and facing a nurse asking whether he knew where he was. He guessed a bookstore. "For a long time, I thought I was on an island," he said.

But if Levy can't remember it, Santa Barbara--a tourist-centric town on the placid Central Coast--recalls the tragedy all too well. Thousands of people rallied and held candlelight vigils afterward to commemorate the victims and demand tighter rein on Isla Vista's legendary party-hearty weekend bacchanals.

Brighter street lights have been installed, and the county's grand jury recently urged law enforcement to open a drunk tank in the crowded student ghetto. Now, the civic wounds are about to bleed once more as the trial of the driver of the car opens next week.

On its face, the trial of David Attias, a slight, spiky-haired UC Santa Barbara film studies student, should be straightforward. There seems little question who was at the wheel that night. Many people say they saw Attias emerge from his Saab and bound maniacally from body to body, shouting, "I am the angel of death," and "Ride or die." "Angel of Death" is the name of a song by the apocalyptic metal band Slayer, while "Ride or Die" is the name of a Tupac Shakur rap album.

Because Attias has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, the central issue is whether he should be held criminally responsible for what happened that night. He faces four counts of murder, as well as four counts of gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. Besides Ruth Levy, 20, and Israel, 27, Attias is accused of killing UC Santa Barbara students Nicholas Bourdakis, 20, and Christopher Divis, 20.

Bourdakis and Divis were strolling in the street with the other three, apparently heading for one of the many parties that in the words of one victim's mother turn Isla Vista into a "den of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll" on weekends.

Jack Earley, Attias' attorney, denies that his client intentionally ran anyone down. "He drove by some big parties; he could have killed 50 people if he was trying," the lawyer said.

Earley said the young man was so troubled by a long history of psychological problems that he should not be thrown in prison but be placed in a mental institution "where he can get treatment."

Court records and interviews portray Attias as being in emotional trouble from an early age. Mental health therapy was part of the curriculum in the middle school he attended. The fact that he had been on medication was revealed in a letter from his father seized by authorities. Daniel Attias, a Hollywood film and television director, reportedly wrote of his concern that David had stopped taking his medication, yet was continuing to drive.

Suspect and His Father Had Tense Relationship

Tensions between father and son escalated to the point that just before the accident, David reportedly ranted to a dorm mate, Michera Colella, that his father was threatening to take away his car unless he started seeing a psychiatrist.

"Why are you telling me this?" Colella was thinking, she said in an interview with The Times several months ago.

The defendant's nickname in the Francisco Torres dorm was Crazy Dave, according to friends, because of such bizarre, aggressive behavior.

Viewing a videotape of the accident's aftermath, when David could be seen fighting with bystanders, a friend said that was typical David.

"Rather than talk things out or walk away, he would come out swinging," Richard Ramsey told The Times.

All this points to a deeply disturbed person, but will it be enough to convince a jury that he was insane at the time of the accident? As in Texas, where Andrea Yates was recently sentenced to life in prison for drowning her five children despite suffering from severe mental illness, just being sick isn't enough to prove insanity in California.

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