An Orange County judge said Friday he's considering separating two phases of the trial for a man accused of carrying out the worst mass killing in Orange County history.
Scott Evans Dekraai, 44, has been charged with killing eight people, seven inside the Salon Meritage beauty salon, including his ex-wife, in Seal Beach on Oct. 12, 2011.
His public defender, Scott Sanders, has accused prosecutors of misconduct, citing what he calls an improper use of jailhouse informants by the Orange County Sheriff's Department to collect evidence against Dekraai and multiple other defendants.
Sanders filed a motion last week asking that the Orange County District Attorney's Office be taken off the case and have the prosecution turned over to the state Attorney General's Office. He also wants to eliminate the possibility of the death penalty for Dekraai.
Assistant District Attorney Dan Wagner, who is prosecuting Dekraai, said in early February that a 505-page motion from Sanders was "filled with untruths."
During a court hearing Friday, Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals said he was considering a rare separation of Dekraai's trial: holding one phase to determine if he is guilty, and if he is convicted, sorting through the misconduct allegations before seating a second jury for the penalty phase, during which jurors recommend whether he should be sentenced to death or life in prison without the chance of parole.
"A guilt trial alone wouldn't take very long,'' Goethals said, adding the evidence against the defendant is compelling. "I'm thinking the people could try the case in a week.''
That would give victims "half the battle," Goethals said.
Sanders reiterated in court Friday that Dekraai was willing to plead guilty to the crimes if the death penalty is taken off the table. The Orange County District Attorney's office has rejected that offer.
Sanders alleges that the Orange County Sheriff's Department has improperly used jailhouse informants to collect evidence against Dekraai.
Sanders argues that one informant -- known as Inmate F -- was housed near Dekraai in a way to make it appear it was a coincidence and got the defendant to talk about the killings.
Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff for Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, downplayed the allegations.
"It's on the defense attorney checklist of things to do now," Schroeder said. "It's something that happens all the time. They'll lose, and we'll do the trial.''
Dekraai is accused of walking into the salon and shooting his ex-wife, Michelle Fournier, before opening fire on others inside the business and a man in the parking lot outside. Dekraai and Fournier were involved in a custody dispute at the time.
The eight people killed were Fournier, 48; the salon's owner, Randy Lee Fannin, 62; Victoria Ann Buzzo, 54; Lucia Bernice Kondas, 65; Laura Lee Elody, 46; Christy Lynn Wilson, 47; Michele Daschbach Fast, 47; and David Caouette, 64, who was shot in his Range Rover outside the salon. 73-year-old Hattie Stretz was also shot, but survived her wounds.
Within minutes of the shootings, Seal Beach police arrested Dekraai a few blocks from the salon.
Dekraai and Fournier had been in a Santa Ana courtroom the day before the shootings for a hearing involving custody of their 8-year-old son, Dominic. Dekraai had been seeking sole custody of his son, but a court-ordered report recommended against it.
In grand jury transcripts unsealed in May 2012, salon hairstylist Gordon Gallego testified that he saw Dekraai enter through a salon side entrance and walk up to his ex-wife, Michelle Fournier, as she washed another stylist’s hair.
Gallego says he then heard Dekraai blurt out, “This is what you wanted, how you wanted it" before he began shooting Fournier and stylist Christy Wilson.
Gallego grabbed co-worker Lisa Powers and ran to the employee restroom to avoid the gunfire, according to testimony.
From behind the closed door, he says he could hear “constant screaming and gunshots.” Then he heard co-worker Laura Elody slump against the other side of the restroom door, begging for her life.
Gallego says he could hear Elody crying, “ You don’t have to do this, please don’t kill me.”
“And then what happened?” asked Orange County Assistant DA Dan Wagner.
Gallego: “He shot her.”
After the gunshots, Gallego says that he “heard her take her last breath.”
Dekraai is set to face a jury trial on the charges March 24. He remains jailed without bail.