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Relatives sue over shotgun slayings

November 18, 2006|Mai Tran | Times Staff Writer

Relatives of a father and daughter who were killed when a neighbor burst into their Aliso Viejo home and opened fire have filed a lawsuit against the killer's family, the gun dealer who sold the weapon and a support-group website where the gunman had vowed to wage a "terror campaign."

Denise Smith and her son, Brandon Smith, filed the lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court this week, seeking damages for wrongful death and emotional distress.

The Smiths allege that the gunman's parents, Karen and Dennis Freund, "permitted" their son to keep a weapon in their home, failed to supervise him, and failed to warn and protect them from their son's violent nature, according to the lawsuit.

Reached by telephone, Dennis Freund declined to comment on the lawsuit. In interviews with investigators shortly after the shootings last year, he and his wife said they did not know that their 19-year-old son owned a shotgun.

An attorney for the Smiths said each of the defendants contributed to the deaths.

"In various ways, these people are responsible for what happened," said Barry Novack, a Beverly Hills attorney. "This was a preventable incident. Had he not had a shotgun, had he not been on this medication, this wouldn't have happened. There are many layers here, and sometimes tragedy occurs when all the pins line up the right way."

The shootings occurred on Oct. 29, 2005, when William Freund, wearing a cape and a dark paintball helmet with a clear face shield, drove his car less than 100 yards around the corner of his California Summit neighborhood.

He entered the Smiths' home and opened fire, killing Vernon Smith, 45, and his daughter, Christina, 22. Her brother, Brandon, escaped through a back door and her mother, Denise, was at work.

After leaving the Smith home, Freund walked slowly back to his own house on Sunbury Drive and shot and killed himself with the 12-gauge Remington shotgun, police said. There were no relationships or other links between Freund and the victims.

Before the murders, Freund e-mailed and posted comments on the WrongPlanet.net website saying he needed a "real life" friend and said he was contemplating suicide.

He also threatened to start "a terror campaign to hurt those that have hurt me."

The website serves as a support group for people with Asperger's syndrome, a neurological disorder, described as a variant of autism, which hampers people's ability to interact socially. Freund suffered from the disorder.

The suit accused the website of failing to alert police, the victims, Freund's family or any authorities to prevent harm.

WrongPlanet founder Alexander Plank declined to comment Friday, but during an interview last year, he said volunteer moderators in Virginia tried to call Freund's parents but were unsuccessful.

The Smiths also accused the Saddleback Valley Gun Center and its owner, George Hueneman, of negligently selling the shotgun to a teenager suffering from a disorder.

Hueneman said he ran a state background check on Freund -- which came up clean. He said the state did not log a person's medical history. He said he was not aware of Freund's condition and that the law did not require him to determine it before selling a him gun.

"I checked with the state, and they told me to sell it to him. How am I supposed to know that he was a mentally disturbed teenager who was on prescription medication?" Hueneman asked. "The state of California and the FBI didn't even know that."

mai.tran@latimes.com

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