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Suspect a haunted man

A bitter custody fight and his involvement in a fatal accident at sea weighed on Scott Dekraai, many say

October 14, 2011|Nicole Santa Cruz and Tony Barboza and Joel Rubin
  • People visit the scene of Wednesdays shooting in Seal Beach, where a gunman fired on nine people.
People visit the scene of Wednesdays shooting in Seal Beach, where a gunman… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

He had been, at one time, an easygoing man and licensed maritime officer who worked and played on the waters off of Southern California.

But a tugboat accident off the coast of El Segundo in 2007 left him with severe leg injuries and killed a fellow deckhand. As he faced several surgeries to repair his leg, Scott Dekraai became locked in a vicious custody battle for his 8-year-old son that friends and family believe may have led to him allegedly killing eight people and critically wounding a ninth in a shooting rampage at a Seal Beach beauty salon Wednesday.

Authorities suspect he targeted Meritage Salon, nestled among a strip of beauty and health shops on Pacific Coast Highway, because his former wife, hairstylist Michelle Fournier, was working inside at the time. She was among those fatally shot.

Fournier's family and friends said she feared her ex-husband, who they say had devoted his life to gaining greater custody of their son. She was struggling to establish a new life despite a seemingly endless string of court appearances.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, October 16, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 52 words Type of Material: Correction
Seal Beach shooting: An article in the Oct. 14 Section A about Scott Dekraai, the man suspected of killing eight people in a shooting rampage at a Seal Beach salon, said that Dekraai was 42 years old. He was 41 at the time of the attack. He will turn 42 on Monday.

"She was upbeat about moving on with her life, but she was also fearful," said friend Molli Raef. "He had been physically and mentally abusing her. She told me, 'I can't believe I got involved in this. He is not right.... He's going to kill me.'"

Her brother, Butch Fournier, said that when he turned on the television Wednesday and saw the salon's awning sign, "I knew exactly who did it and exactly what happened."

A portrait emerged Thursday, from court filings and interviews, of a hobbled, angry man. Earlier this year Dekraai returned to court seeking more time with the boy, according to court records.

The most recent hearing occurred Tuesday, at which a court report recommended retaining a near-equal custody arrangement.

Dekraai, 42, and Fournier, 48, divorced in 2007 after four years of marriage. Since separating, the two had been heatedly accusing each other in court filings of being an unfit parent determined to manipulate their son.

He accused her of having a drinking problem. She claimed he physically abused her and was "bipolar."

In an April court filing, Fournier asked Dekraai to pay her legal bills. She was, she said, going deeper into debt to pay her attorney and contended that Dekraai recently had received an "extremely large sum" of money from a disability settlement. Dekraai was attempting to make her pay child support and alter the terms of their custody agreement.

He was paying $1,500 a month in child support, records show.

It is unclear whether the judge made any ruling on Fournier's request. Court papers do show that Dekraai had received an unspecified sum of money to settle a lawsuit against a former employer stemming from the accident in which he was injured.

That accident, friends and acquaintances said, marked a dramatic turning point in Dekraai's life.

In February 2007, after years spent working on sport fishing boats, tugboats and other marine jobs, Dekraai was working aboard a tugboat in Santa Monica Bay, according to an account of the accident in Professional Mariner magazine. A rope tethering the tug to a fuel barge went suddenly taut, pinning another member of the crew against a wall, crushing her to death. In his rush to help the woman, a metal cleat struck Dekraai's leg, causing serious injuries.

A police officer described Dekraai's effort to save his co-worker as "heroic," according to the magazine article.

Afterward, people who know him say Dekraai's personality changed.

Once lighthearted, his mood turned dark as he struggled with chronic pain and the guilt of not having been able to save the woman. Later that year, as the custody battle raged, Dekraai "verbally and physically attacked" his stepfather, as Dekraai's then-4-year-old son looked on, according to a restraining order issued against Dekraai. The order barred him from possessing firearms and required him to complete a 52-week batterer intervention program. It expired a year later.

In 2008, Dekraai's doctor diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder as the result of the tugboat accident, according to court records. The doctor stated that the repeated, angry phone calls that Dekraai claimed Fournier made to him were "extremely stressful" and "not healthy" for Dekraai. As a result of that letter, a judge limited contact between the couple to only one call a week.

Don Ashley, owner of Pierpoint Landing in Long Beach, where Dekraai worked for about 10 years, remembered a time when he was a happy, outgoing person who loved to surf and boogie-board.

"Everybody loved him. If you asked me a hundred people and gave me from a scale of one to 10 who would be most likely to flip, he wouldn't have been there," Ashley said. "Up until the accident, he was heavy into fishing and water sports."

But that all changed after the accident. As he coped with his injuries, he was bedridden and having surgery after surgery. Once trim and muscular, he became overweight.

"The last four or five years, he was pretty miserable," Ashley said. And the companies he had worked for struggled to find him work.

In one conversation, Dekraai told Ashley that the circulatory and nerve damage and the pain were so bad, he would have been better off if he had lost his legs.

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nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

tony.barboza@latimes.com

joel.rubin@latimes.com

Times staff writers Louis Sahagun, Mona Shadia, Richard Winton, Abby Sewell and Lauren Williams contributed to this report.

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