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TV Director Testifies in Son's Murder Trial

THE STATE

Court: Daniel Attias says it was a 'horrific mistake' to buy student the car with which he killed four people in Isla Vista.

May 29, 2002|JOHN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA BARBARA — Television director Daniel Attias admitted Tuesday it was a "horrific, horrific mistake" to buy his deeply troubled son the car he used to kill four people in Isla Vista last year.

"I feel remorse about that, yes I do," said Attias, 50, looking grave and worn as he took the stand in his son David's murder trial.

But the elder Attias said he reasoned that buying the turbocharged Saab for his son might give him some leverage over David and his increasingly explosive behavior. He was desperately trying to persuade his son to take his medication, which the defendant had stopped when he went off to college at UC Santa Barbara. Around campus, David's increasingly strange behavior earned him the nickname "Crazy Dave," according to previous testimony.

The younger Attias had been in two other auto accidents in the weeks before the Isla Vista neighborhood incident that took four lives on Feb. 23, 2001.

"While I was concerned about his driving, I was not alarmed," said Daniel Attias. "Perhaps I should be faulted."

The younger Attias is accused of second-degree murder in the auto rampage. The defendant has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. The defense spent the opening days of the trial trying to show the 20-year-old was a deeply troubled person who couldn't make friends and was institutionalized at 13 for trying to strangle his sister, Rachel. A parade of therapists and psychiatrists have taken the stand to describe the defendant as everything from a budding schizophrenic to an obsessive-compulsive and manic-depressive whose childhood was an emotional war zone.

He attended a variety of special schools and took a medicine cabinet full of drugs aimed at controlling his impulsive, rage-filled behavior. Defense attorney Jack Earley said David Attias suffered a psychotic break the night of the accident and has no memory of hitting anyone.

The prosecution, while admitting that the younger Attias suffers from mental illness, maintains that the defendant knew what he was doing that night. Killed in the incident were Ellie Israel, 27, and Christopher Divis, Ruth Levy and Nicholas Bourdakis, all 20.

For most of the trial, David Attias, who has been taking psychotropic medication in jail, has sat mute, showing little interest in his surroundings. As the elder Attias testified, he seemed to avoid looking at his son, whom he characterized as "a wonderful child" with enormous gifts but even more enormous troubles.

Earley previously called witnesses to describe Attias' difficulties in the outside world. With the elder Attias taking the stand, the jurors were given a close-up view of a family that was often in chaos in David's early years.

Daniel Attias said he was away a lot building his career as a television director. His credits include episodes of "The Sopranos," "Ally McBeal" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

"Directing episodic television is very demanding, very stressful," he said.

When he got home, he said, he often found things in an uproar. He said his wife, Diana, loved David, but "tended to withdraw" from the upheaval, allowing David free rein. At one time, his wife threatened to move out, Attias said. "I love my wife," said the father. "But it did make me very frustrated."

He also said the family often made up "a combustible kind of arrangement."

The elder Attias admitted his own shortcomings, saying he had "high expectations" for his son and was reluctant to believe his problems in school and at home were indicators of serious developing mental illness. If he had realized what was going on, he would have allowed his son to withdraw from UC Santa Barbara and attend Santa Monica City College, as he wanted.

The defense is expected to wrap up its case this week.

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