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Town's sense of safety is pierced

But residents of 'Mayberry by the sea' Seal Beach say salon shooting was an anomaly

October 14, 2011|Joe Mozingo and Louis Sahagun
  • A young woman on Thursday looks at the notes, flowers, candles and balloons left for victims of Wednesday's shooting at a salon in Seal Beach.
A young woman on Thursday looks at the notes, flowers, candles and balloons… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

Mike Dicorato was sitting on the Seal Beach pier with his daughter Tuesday, enjoying the quiet of a fall afternoon. His neighbor, the editor of the local newspaper, approached with a question for his weekly Sidewalk Talk feature.

"Do you feel safe where you live?" he asked.

Dicorato, 57, thought for a moment.

"Physically, yes," he said. "But you can't leave anything unlocked or it will be gone."

He'd had a couple of beach chairs stolen from his alley.

The following afternoon, Seal Beach witnessed the deadliest shooting in Orange County history. A gunman walked into the crowded Salon Meritage on Pacific Coast Highway and opened fire, killing eight people and critically injuring another.

Sent to press before the shooting, the Seal Beach Sun landed at local businesses Thursday morning with a front-page photo about the weekend kite festival. All four people interviewed in the Sidewalk Talk piece said they felt safe. One woman who had moved from Seal Beach to Huntington Beach said: "Yes. But I felt safer when I lived in Seal Beach."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, October 15, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Salon shooting victims: In the Oct. 14 LATExtra section, a list of people killed in a shooting rampage at Salon Meritage in Seal Beach misspelled the name of victim Michele Daschbach Fast as Michelle Daschback Fast.

This could have been cruel irony. But even the morning after the deadly rampage, residents still felt safe.

Children still rode the squeaky swings at the playground by the pier. Customers at Bogart's Coffeehouse still hunkered over their laptops and lattes. Aging dudes in tank tops and flip-flops still wheeled around town on their beach cruisers. And fishermen dropped their lines into water so glass-smooth that it looked as if you could walk to Catalina.

The balmy day brought an eerie dissonance between the horror of what had happened and the knowledge that their little beach town did not give rise to it.

"Seal Beach is Seal Beach," said resident Henry Braun, 57, as if nothing more needed to be said. "It's quiet. It's like a small town in the Midwest. It's safe. It's still safe. It just happened here, but it doesn't belong to us."

This is not to say that people were not distraught. Even as the town's laid-back rhythm was resuming, they were planning a candlelight vigil at the salon.

The Old Town section of Seal Beach, where the shooting occurred, is a tight community of 9,000. People know each other. They talk on the sidewalk, on the pier and in the hardware store, coffee shops, surf shops, bars and well over a dozen hair and nail salons. By mid-morning, they were hearing a few of the names of those who had been in the salon.

"Everyone is waiting," said John Domingue, 56, a street performer meeting friends on the pier. "Everyone is going to know someone in there."

"I feel like right now I'm just waiting for the shoe to drop," said JoAnn Adams, owner of Bogart's. "Maybe they were some of my customers. It's just very surreal today. It almost feels like the day after 9/11, the same feeling, like we're just walking through the motions."

But she did not think it would change the personality of Seal Beach. Residents will still flock to the annual fish fry, the car show, the pancake breakfast and the kite fest.

"I think people see this as a random event," she said.

About 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, the attacker stormed into the salon. Michelle Fournier, the former wife of the suspect, Scott Dekraai of Huntington Beach, worked there. The two, who had lived for years in Seal Beach, were in a bitter custody dispute over their 8-year-old son. The gunman began shooting indiscriminately; victims fell to the floor, and others tried to escape. Fournier was among the dead.

In the city of 24,000, the last homicide was in 2004.

"The locals for years have called this Mayberry by the sea," Domingue said. "Why do we even have police? The joke was they got the coolest gig in town."

Salon Meritage was not just a business; owned by Randy Fannin, who was killed Wednesday, it was an extended family, a microcosm of its community.

Pam Serdutz, a 67-year-old schoolteacher, paced nervously outside of the door, desperate to know whether her favorite stylist was among the victims.

"I can't stand it, not knowing whether Gordon survived or not," she said, pinching her forehead to not cry. Gordon Gallego had cut her hair for years.

"I called his home phone, but his message machine is full. I just know something happened to him." (Gallego was not on the list of victims later released by police.)

Serdutz paced and played back memories in her head.

"Let me tell you how Gordon became an important part of the life of my family," she started.

She turned and sobbed, then collected herself. "Once 15 years ago, my 17-year-old daughter desperately needed her hair done for prom night; the woman who usually did her hair was busy.

"We walked in here for the first time cold, off the street and sobbing. It was only five hours before the prom. Gordon told another stylist to take the client he was working with ... and then he turned to me and said: 'Mom, give us two hours. This little girl is going to the prom, and I'm going to see to it.'"

They've been going to him ever since.

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