Having waited nearly four years to see punishment for the unhinged, heavily armed man who in 2011 murdered his wife and seven other people in Orange County’s worst mass shooting, Paul Wilson stood before Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals on March 20, 2015, incredulous that People v. Scott Dekraai would take more time to resolve. After all, prosecutors held a slam-dunk case. Minutes following the Seal Beach salon massacre, cops captured Dekraai fleeing in his pickup truck toward Huntington Beach on Pacific Coast Highway, about two football fields away from crashing ocean waves. The 41-year-old former yacht-crew member, who’d been disabled in a freak boating accident, immediately confessed.
At the time, nobody foresaw an approaching disaster that would stall Dekraai. For years, with the approval of their superiors, corrupt Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) jail deputies in the Special Handling Unit conducted secret, illegal scams to help Tony Rackauckas’ district attorney’s office (OCDA) win cases. The same month that Wilson expressed dismay, Goethals, a former prosecutor, historically recused Rackauckas and his entire office from the trial after concluding they couldn’t be trusted to act ethically during the penalty phase. Evidence collected at special evidentiary hearings proved the DA and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ deputies repeatedly cheated to tilt the criminal-justice system toward the government’s preferred outcome: a death penalty for Dekraai.
After a remorseless Rackauckas announced he would appeal Goethals’ ruling, his aides advised Wilson, then baffled by developments, the move could delay the case for as long as two or three, perhaps even five years, as the appellate process played out. The international-clothing-industry executive had been living in misery since he lost Christy, the 47-year-old mother of his three kids and wife of 26 blissful years.
“There wasn’t a day we didn’t talk on the phone no matter where I was in the world,” he recalled. “Christy was not only my wife but my best friend by far.”
Losing the love of his life unexpectedly was painful enough, but a seemingly unending legal process blocked Wilson from any hope of healing. Yet, he couldn’t stay away from the drawn-out courthouse drama. In his mind, ignoring proceedings meant a betrayal of Christy’s memory, though attendance necessitated sitting 10 feet from Dekraai day after day for years.
“I’m in total disbelief today,” Wilson told Goethals, Rackauckas and a packed Santa Ana courtroom that included nearly two dozen reporters. “There is no doubt in anybody’s minds this coward killed eight people. And now we are in this system where I’m looking at another year of appeals and another year of this. I’m in this tumbler, and I’m wondering why [with] something that was so cut and dry that we have to sit through this. It’s the worst week of my life, beside the week that [the murder] happened. [I’m tired] of trying to explain to my family why this is happening, why this just can’t go away. I just don’t have answers for them anymore, mainly because I’m just beat up.”
For years, Wilson desperately wanted a non-compliant Rackauckas to end the case, the controversy surrounding what had become known nationally as Orange County’s jailhouse-informant scandal and his anguish by accepting a defense proposal that Dekraai receive eight consecutive life-in-prison terms without the possibility of parole. He also aimed anger at Scott Sanders, the assistant public defender representing the killer and the person who discovered the systematic, illegal use of jail snitches to bolster prosecutions without judges and juries learning of the tactic. As the case proceeded slowly, the defense lawyer regularly expressed compassion for the victims, a sentiment that went noticeably unreturned.
Said Wilson, “Mr. Sanders, you can sit in that hallway, sit down next to me all you want and tell me what you’re doing is right. It’s not right. You’ve got blood on your hands. How do you go to bed every night knowing that? I would be embarrassed if I did what you’re doing to these families and to me in defense of him. This whole due process, all of this—I believed in the system. I just don’t anymore. Because we are fighting for his rights.”
An unflinching Dekraai, who was handcuffed to his chair, stared down at the table in front of him, while a seated Sanders had turned around to face Wilson. He slowly nodded at each line while resisting urges to wince, especially after his children were mentioned. Later, Sanders told reporters he understood his client caused enormous pain.
“Let’s march the eight [victims] in here and ask them about their rights,” Wilson continued. “Can’t do that because [Dekraai] killed them. He murdered every one of them. They didn’t have any rights. They don’t today, but he does. And there is nothing you can tell me, that anybody in this room can tell me, that [says] he deserves to have rights. I just don’t get it, and I never will get it. You’ll never convince me of that. I’m ashamed that I’ve got to come in here for three and a half years and that guy gets to breathe the same oxygen that I breathe and that these families get to breathe. He doesn’t deserve that right.”
But in one of the most astonishing reversals in Southern California legal history, Wilson eventually abandoned his criticism of Sanders and embraced his work as righteous. The two men have become friends and confidants. They even share an indignant mantra: What kind of police cheat in slam-dunk cases? To Rackauckas’ horror, this formidable duo claims to share a previously undisclosed mission to shine a spotlight on entrenched corruption in Orange County law enforcement.
Before 2 p.m. on Oct. 12, 2011, Wilson’s 21-year-old daughter, Kielynn, called to ask if he knew what was happening at Salon Meritage. She had driven by on her way to work and saw cops, helicopters, a crowd and yellow crime-scene tape. “I figured there’d been an auto accident,” recalled Wilson, who was working in downtown Los Angeles. “I said, ‘Let me call Christy.’ I called five or six times. Usually, even if she’s busy, she picks up. But she didn’t do that.”
Then he received a call from Gordon Gallego, Christy’s co-worker at the salon. He’d escaped the carnage by hiding in a bathroom while Dekraai executed his plan. “I heard fear in his voice,” said Wilson. “He said, ‘Paul, you’ve got to get down here.’ I said, ‘Where is Christy? Tell me Christy is okay.’ He said, ‘I can’t do that.’ Then the line went dead.”
Wilson jumped in his car, turned his flashers on, honked his horn, ran red lights, and wove in and out of the HOV lane and freeway shoulder during the 20-minute trip. “I started to hyperventilate,” he said. “I felt my hands tightening on the steering wheel.” While he raced down the 605 freeway, his mother called to say there had been a shooting at the salon, but she didn’t think Christy was involved. Wilson felt relief.
“We met when we were 21 and fell in love immediately,” he recently recalled. “At the time, I was a trauma tech and she was doing nails. Both of us wanted to build a family and we thought we’d be together forever. We had an amazing life.”
But when he arrived at the salon, he spotted her Cadillac Escalade parked on the other side of crime-scene tape. “I just got this feeling in my gut. I knew.”
Authorities directed family members of the salon employees to a nearby church. Wilson sat on the floor. A harrowing mental fog took over that wouldn’t disappear for months. Reports of the massacre dominated news outlets throughout the state. Dekraai had worn a bulletproof vest and used three weapons in a two-minute attack motivated by a desire to harm his 48-year-old ex-wife, Michelle Fournier—Christy’s co-worker and longtime friend—over a bitter child-custody dispute.
Wilson waited more than 30 hours for the coroner to confirm his wife was among the victims who’d died from multiple gunshot wounds. Others killed were Victoria Buzzo, 54; David Caouette, 64; Randy Lee Fannin, 62; Michele Fast, 37; Lucia Bernice Kondas, 65; and Laura Webb Elody, 46. Elody’s 73-year-old mother, Hattie Stretz, survived the attack.
Seven years later, tears still appear in Wilson’s eyes as he recounts the tragedy. He says the first six months following the murders were excruciating, but he survived the ordeal thanks especially to longtime friend Mike Bobbitt. Compounding his fury, he and his family knew the killer for years, even dined with him. In fact, Dekraai had given a surfboard to one of Wilson’s sons as a gift.
“After we knew it was Dekraai who took his mom away, I watched my son start beating up that surfboard with a hammer, just crushing it, pulverizing it,” Wilson said. “I let him do it. He needed to get frustration out.”
Two days after the shooting, Rackauckas summoned the victims’ families to his 10th-floor office inside the OCDA’s Santa Ana headquarters. Having never been in a courthouse and knowing little about the justice system, Wilson accepted the DA’s performance as genuine. “He put on a really sad face and sad voice and gave us a speech,” Wilson said. “He told us he was using his best team on the case and that we had 24-hour access to them seven days a week.”
The DA noted he’d “shoulder the burden” of handling the press corps who’d gathered in a first-floor conference room. But before leaving, he made an assertion that’s etched in Wilson’s mind. “He said, ‘We’ve got your back. I want you guys to know that.’ And I believed him. Why would it be any other way? He’s the district attorney of Orange County. That’s his job.”
At home, he watched TV news broadcasts featuring Rackauckas. “The people of our community were made victims of a bloody massacre by a methodical and merciless killer,” the DA read from prepared remarks. “In a selfish, cruel act of senseless violence, eight innocent people were murdered. A ninth remains in critical condition. The lives of the victims’ families and friends will forever be changed, with a missing place in their hearts and a missing chair at their Thanksgiving dinners.”
Later in the same press conference, the DA promised “to seek justice for the lives of each of these individuals to the best of our ability.” He paused to weep for an extended period and announced he intended to hand Dekraai the ultimate punishment. “There are some cases that are so depraved and so callous and so malignant that there’s only one punishment that might have any chance of fitting the crime,” a sniffling Rackauckas said. “I will, of course, seek the death penalty.”
But behind the scenes, Rackauckas wanted to ensure his victory, even if it meant conducting illegal operations. He sourly remembered the case of Edward Charles Allaway, who killed seven people at Cal State Fullerton in July 1976. Five mental-health professionals testified Allaway, who’d undergone electric-shock therapy, was insane, leading him to spend the past 43 years locked in a state mental hospital.
“There were certainly some concerns about the possibility of [Dekraai] deciding or his counsel deciding to go after an insanity plea,” he admitted about his post-arrest thinking during a 2016 community forum. “Dekraai [who suffered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the boating accident] had some psychiatric issues in his past.”
One day following the DA’s press conference, law-enforcement officials illegally plotted to trick an in-custody Dekraai into making statements that could preclude an insanity defense. Rackauckas knew but didn’t care that the U.S. Supreme Court decided in 1964 (USA v. Massiah) that government officials and their agents, such as informants, are constitutionally banned from questioning charged and legally represented pretrial defendants. That legal reasoning goes back to the nation’s Founding Fathers, who were disgusted by the King of England forcing people to testify against themselves in criminal trials.
But believing nobody would ever learn of their cheating, OCSD’s Special Handling Unit placed prolific snitch Fernando Perez in the cell next to Dekraai after his arraignment. Perez, a two-faced Mexican Mafia boss who’d ordered murders for his gang and faced life in prison under California’s Three Strikes law, knew his questioning of the government target would win rewards. He was right. In 2017, the OCDA dismissed serious counts and cut him a sweetheart deal that means he could win freedom as soon as 2022.
In the early stages of Dekraai, Rackauckas and Dan Wagner, the chief of the OCDA homicide unit, seized Dekraai’s private psychiatric records without waiting for a court order. Next, they tried to use Perez’s work in court by insisting authorities had no role in him befriending the defendant for weeks, as well as his reporting daily to deputies on the results of his questioning. Despite Wagner’s strenuous attempts to hide the truth about the snitch, Sanders ultimately discovered the scam, and in 2014, Goethals ruled the collected statements impermissible, accused deputies of committing perjury to cover up their misconduct and voiced dismay that prosecutors ignored basic ethical obligations.
Though the cheating prolonged the case by years, Rackauckas remains unrepentant as he campaigns against opponents Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who has worked as a prosecutor, and Brett Murdock, the former mayor of Brea. The 75-year-old DA hails himself a law-and-order advocate, but he used a re-election event this year to mock the Massiah violations as highly “technical” requirements that shouldn’t concern the public. He wants a sixth, four-year term following the June 5 election because he says he runs a near-perfect office.
According to family and friends, vivacious is the best word to describe Christy Wilson. Standing a fit 5-foot-7 and 110 pounds, she had many loves: paddleboarding with a granddaughter in Huntington Harbor; working as a manicurist; watching comedy shows; raising her kids; traveling to lakes, rivers and the ocean; dining with her husband, Paul; designing remodeling projects; chatting on the cellphone with friends; drinking a good Chardonnay by their pool; cruising to Catalina Island on her parents’ 50-foot yacht; and purchasing handmade decorative wood crosses that she displayed in her Lakewood home, where she maintained an open-door policy for visitors. Quick to make friends, she espoused unswerving optimism.
“Christy was a happy-go-lucky person,” Paul explained. “She was never stressed. She always had a smile on her face. I’d tell her something bad that happened, and she’d go, ‘Okay, Paul, that’s bad, but here’s the silver lining in that . . .’”
Christy became increasingly interested in studying spirituality with a group of friends in the final years of her life. She enjoyed lighting incense and candles, thinking about her loved ones, and voicing positive hopes for their lives. Paul often saw her at peace outside, watching the moon’s travel across night skies.
On the evening before her murder, she asked her husband to join her “forgiving moon,” or full moon, watch. He declined, choosing instead to view ESPN in the den, where he fell asleep on a couch. When he awoke the next morning, Christy had four hours to live when she told him how the previous night had been “beautiful.” Paul recalled her telling him, “I went out there, and I realized I didn’t have anybody to ask forgiveness for or anything to forgive because everything is so good right now.”
The couple drank coffee and read the newspaper, then Paul left to get a haircut at the Salon Meritage after kissing Christy goodbye.
“I remember it was a completely cloudless day,” he said. “The sun was out. It was boiling hot.”
At the shop, Fournier told everyone that Dekraai—who twice before temporarily lost his guns to police because of violent episodes with family members—had called her, demanding a meeting at a cafe. Fearful of him, her co-workers objected.
A few hours after Paul left, the killer entered the shop’s side entrance, walked up to Fournier, who was washing Christy’s hair, and fired fatal shots at both before turning his attention to the others present, including Fast, who’d unfortunately chosen that day to use a gift certificate for her first visit.
Marcy’s Law in California requires crime victims “be treated with fairness and respect,” but Paul Wilson’s illusions about Rackauckas sharply eroded about two years into the case. Sanders announced in open court that the DA rejected his proposal to give his client eight consecutive life terms without the possibility of parole. The victims were stunned they’d been kept in the dark by prosecutors.
Although the families took differing views on a fitting punishment, Wilson abandoned his desire for the death penalty 12 months into the case. He’d learned the state held more than 760 inmates on death row, so a sentence of death was unlikely to ever be carried out and there would be potential decades of appeals. To argue for the plea deal that would allow him to start the healing process, Wilson demanded a meeting with Rackauckas.
“Tony was sitting behind his desk with that blank, non-feeling look on his face,” he said. “I asked him why he didn’t open up [the plea-bargain offer] to a discussion with the families. He said, ‘Mr. Wilson, I want you to know one thing: That decision rests only with one person, and that’s me.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute, are you saying you never intended to let the families know about this?’ Then he told me, ‘I don’t need your and the other families’ input. It’s my decision.’ And I thought, ‘Wow. This guy doesn’t care about us.’”
The next blows to his confidence in the OCDA happened after Wagner blamed Goethals, whom Wilson greatly respects, for allowing embarrassing testimony of law-enforcement misconduct and labeled Sanders’ discoveries just “crazy defense tactics.” Wilson started paying more attention to information the public defender exposed about the scandal and reading the Weekly’s coverage. Wagner increasingly dodged his questions about illegal snitch use, lying deputies and hidden records.
“That’s when the light bulb went off in my head,” Wilson said. “These DA guys are not honest. Trying to get the death penalty wasn’t for the families, like they promised; it was about what was best for Rackauckas. It’s just a notch in his belt.”
In a 2016 essay for GQ magazine, comedian Patton Oswalt recounted his daily struggles after Michelle McNamara, his 46-year-old wife, unexpectedly died in her sleep earlier that year because of an unknown heart condition and prescribed medication use. Oswalt was left to raise their 7-year-old daughter. He reported immense initial anger from his plight, causing fear of “the next jolt” in his life.
For Wilson, the second jolt happened three months after Christy’s murder. Doctors diagnosed one of his sons with life-threatening cancer requiring emergency surgery. “I had nothing left,” he said. “I looked up at the sky and told God, ‘Listen, I’ve had enough. Leave me alone. Don’t pick on me anymore. They say you’ll never put more on your plate than someone can handle. Well, you’ve given more than I can handle. You’ve beaten me to a pulp. Stop!’”
After he uttered those lines, he says, his eyes focused for the first time on a box his wife had placed in an odd spot in their home. “I looked inside and saw this little, hand-painted dish,” Wilson said. The coroner’s office hadn’t returned either of Christy’s two wedding rings, but when he looked inside the dish, he found a folded-up piece of paper that contained the original wedding ring and an inspirational message to him.
“There I am, at my end,” Wilson said. “I’m in a rage, yelling at God, and all of a sudden, I got distracted, looked down and found her message and the ring. I started laughing my ass off because this is what Christy did. She always wanted me to know that everything’s going to be okay.”
That reminder was perhaps a follow-up to one on the day of his wife’s funeral. He’d put on a new shirt that felt itchy and caused him to sweat. As his family got into limousines to go to the church, Wilson put the key in the front door to lock it. But then he decided to re-enter his home to change shirts. In the clothing closet, he discovered a notepad.
“I then remembered I’d wanted to write Christy a goodbye note and place it in her casket,” he said. “I still get emotional about this. I opened up the notepad and see she had listed ‘good intentions’ she wanted for everyone in the family.”
For Wilson, she wrote, “I sat outside today thinking about how lucky I am, how lucky we are. I love you every day.”
She’d penned the note exactly one month before her murder.
On a late April morning in a doughnut shop near Little Saigon, the defense lawyer and the victim looked genuinely at ease with each other, even occasionally sharing laughs. Wilson still loathes Dekraai, but he accepts Sanders’ continued attorney-client loyalty. Despite those differences, two tragedies—a massacre and a law-enforcement scandal—have produced an unlikely alliance. Sanders said to Wilson, “I would definitely say we’ve become friends,” and he heard “absolutely” in reply.
“He’s amazing,” Wilson said. “He always made us victims know he was thinking of us and cared for our feelings. We didn’t get that from the prosecutors.”
The transformation is breathtaking given tensions between the two in the early years of the case, before outsiders learned of Rackauckas’ prosecution-team antics. Diverting attention from their own shoddy ethics, the DA’s public-relations team headed by Susan Kang Schroeder worked to portray Sanders as the villain. Wilson initially bought the pitch, launched multiple blistering courtroom criticisms and, as he now concedes, “even rode him pretty hard” in the hallway during breaks.
Wilson explained, “You’ve got to remember the DA lied to us families that the defense was playing crazy games by making stuff up.”
Sanders understands. “Paul deservedly was talking in court about what he was experiencing, and I listened,” he said. “Sometimes, it was painful to hear. But I know that if you do what Mr. Dekraai did, you’re going to get that response.”
Wilson went from entirely supportive of the prosecution and railing on Sanders to railing on the defense, Rackauckas and Wagner. By mid-2015, his public pronouncements were aimed squarely at the prosecutors, blaming the DA for wrecking an easy case. The following year, he began praising the defense lawyer for exposing law-enforcement corruption. At the time of Dekraai’s sentencing in September 2017, Wilson and Beth Webb, who lost her sister Laura in the massacre, declared their fondness for Sanders, his professional demeanor and his work ethic.
“I’ve never had a situation like this where people who have been through so much are able to look through that pain to see other issues,” Sanders said. “It’s so hard. I don’t think there’s been family members in this type of crime who have been able to see what the government was doing was so outrageous. It will never change their feelings toward Mr. Dekraai. I wouldn’t expect it to. But to see there’s something else going on [with the cheating] and know it’s terrible—not as a terrible as losing love ones, but still terrible—that’s an incredible, historic shift.”
The criminal-justice system can’t function if it tolerates cops who violate the law, hide evidence and commit perjury. Theoretically, local DA offices would hold badged law breakers accountable. But Orange County is a place where police corruption has been largely tolerated. The most glaring recent example was in Dekraai; Rackauckas refused to file charges against at least three OCSD Special Handling Unit deputies who, as Goethals noted, flagrantly lied on the witness stand in 2014 and 2015.
What’s supposed to happen when a local DA is an ethical mess is that higher powers step in and pursue corruption cases. That’s what happened a decade ago when Rackauckas hailed then-Sheriff Mike Carona’s integrity. The U.S. Department of Justice, IRS and FBI stepped in; investigated bribery; won a conviction; and sent Carona to federal prison for 66 months.
In March 2015, the California Attorney General’s office under now-U.S. Senator Kamala Harris opened a probe into Hutchens’ OCSD because of the snitch scandal. It also reluctantly assumed control of the Dekraai case after Rackauckas’ recusal and tried to defend the embattled DA before an unimpressed California Court of Appeal. Federal judges have also criticized the state agency for protecting dirty cops and prosecutors, and the Orange County situation brought no change.
Instead of filing charges against the lying deputies, the AG’s office, under Harris and then Xavier Becerra, have followed Rackauckas’ path. They’ve done nothing but allow statutes of limitations to expire on the deputies’ 2014 perjury. Meanwhile, by claiming it’s still busy investigating Hutchens’ outfit, the office used that excuse to keep defense lawyers from viewing evidence of OCSD corruption in numerous other trials against citizens unlucky enough just to be civilians. The wily sheriff has piggybacked on the AG’s stall posture by claiming she can’t discipline the cheaters in her department until the alleged probe ends.
“The AG’s office keeps saying they are investigating, but nothing is being done,” Wilson said. “Everybody in the justice system has to be honest, or it won’t work. We’re a perfect example of that. Look at what happened to our case because so many in the sheriff’s department and DA’s office were dishonest. So, we, as victims, spent almost seven years going to court when it should have been over within two years.”
In December 2017, after Dekraai had been transported to Charles Manson’s longtime home at Corcoran State Prison in the Central Valley, Wilson remained seething about what he’d witnessed. He wanted action. After mulling over his options, he sent a five-page letter to Becerra.
“No justification exists for the failure to bring charges,” he wrote. “I want to talk face-to-face to explain why the family members of those killed and injured in this case are victims of the perjury and cheating that destroyed the trial. You also need to understand that we won’t be the only victims if you fail to act. If people with badges are led to believe they can ignore the laws the rest of us must follow, they’ll never worry about violating them, and down the road, others will have their lives turned upside-down when the misconduct is finally discovered.”
The AG declined a rendezvous, but several of his staffers based in Los Angeles appeared for a meeting. Wilson thought the state officials wouldn’t want to hear his message, “Hey, Orange County law enforcement doesn’t fear you guys. They don’t feel they need to follow any rules.”
As he looks back, the meeting was disconcerting. He’d asked them to name “just one thing” they’d done in recent months in their OCSD investigation. The AG officials refused, claiming their ongoing probe requires their public silence.
On the day of this article’s publication, Becerra took time to visit OCSD, greet sheriff’s management warmly and announce anti-gang operations between the two agencies in what may have been a cheap PR stunt to help Hutchens’ handpicked successor, Don Barnes, four weeks before his election against opponent Dave Harrington. The AG claimed his goal is to hold law-breakers “accountable.”
Not surprisingly and surely to Barnes’ delight, Becerra, the former Los Angeles-area congressional Democrat, dodged questions about why his office has not held dirty cops accountable in the snitch scandal.
Driving south on the 5 freeway in late 2017 while listening to KFI-AM, Wilson felt some relief. He’d met a woman who lost a partner in an unexpected tragedy too, and the two fell in love. “After basically thinking my life was over, it’s nice to be in a special relationship,” he said.
But he also felt despondent, realizing nobody in power was willing to fight corruption in OC. “I was thinking it’s over, but it can’t be over,” he recalled. “These guys believe they are above the law. They have to be held accountable. We can’t walk away now. We can’t stop.”
He called the last person anyone would expect: Sanders.
“So, we’ve found this unusual alignment,” the public defender explained. “Paul is just as strong, if not stronger, saying, ‘We’re not going to let them get away with it.’ We have an interesting challenge. How do we bring people’s attention to the fact that the system here isn’t working?”
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.