The bitter father charged with gunning down his ex-wife and eight others at a beauty salon should have had an idyllic Southern California childhood: He spent his formative years just blocks from the beach with his beloved grandparents, fished from the pier with friends and surfed along the wide, sandy beaches of his hometown.
But bad luck and bad blood conspired against Scott Dekraai, turning him into an angry teenager — and an angrier adult — whose life spiraled ever more out of control with each new challenge until, police say, a bitter custody battle over his 8-year-old son triggered his spasm of violence Wednesday.
For years, family members and friends watched Dekraai struggle with rage and mental health problems.
"He was the cutest little kid you'd ever want to see and if you look at his high school pictures, he was a handsome young man," said Max Hinmon, his step-uncle. "But now he's a very emotionless person. He can be very charming and he'll smile at you and you'll think he's the nicest person in the world. But he's got an extreme dark side to him. He'll fly off the handle at any little thing."
Dekraai, 41, showed no emotion Friday at his first court appearance hours after prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty. He postponed entering pleas on eight counts of murder and one count of attempted murder in the rampage at Salon Meritage.
Deadly day at the salon
The beauty parlor was packed with customers just after lunch Wednesday when Dekraai, clad in a bulletproof vest, opened fire with at least two handguns, killing his ex-wife Michelle Fournier and seven others, including a man in his car outside the shop, authorities said. An elderly woman having her hair styled by her daughter, who died in the carnage, remains in critical condition.
Arrested just minutes later, the pale, bloated man in handcuffs and an open shirt barely resembled the tan, handsome teen who pitched for his high school baseball team, played football like his dad and spent hours sport-fishing with his grandfather on the Pacific Ocean.
His biological father, Terry Dekraai, who played football at the University of Southern California with OJ Simpson, was hardly in the picture and his mother, Michelle, and stepfather had trouble raising him, Hinmon said. They had to remove Dekraai's bedroom door because he was trying to have sex with girls when he was as young as 12, said his step-aunt, Sharyn White.
The boy idolized his step-grandfather, Monte Moore, a character who wore an eye patch and was known to some as "Pirate" around Seal Beach. Dekraai was happiest in his company and they shared a special bond, spending hours on the water, said Nancey Kredell, a close family friend.
"He didn't have it easy. His parents weren't together and his grandfather was a big portion of his life. He doted on him, just dearly loved him, and thought he could do no wrong," Kredell said. "He was the one really firm rock."
Dekraai eventually moved in with his grandparents and began accompanying the older man on boating and fishing trips when he was as young as 11 or 12.
'Even-keeled, good-natured person'
He was so passionate about boats that he began working as a young teen at a business that runs fishing, diving and whale watching tours. He eventually joined the payroll as a crewman, said Don Ashley, co-owner of Pierpoint Landing in Long Beach.
He was popular with tourists and other crew members alike and was incredibly fit, finding time to play high school football and baseball while holding down his job.
"He was the most even-keeled, good-natured person. A lot of our groups would say, 'Hey, is Scott going to be on the boat today?' They looked forward to him and the crews, the same thing," Ashley said. "When you put five or six people on a boat, a lot of times it's oil and water and they just don't get along. He got along with everybody."
In 1991, Dekraai went to work at Catalina Channel Express, working his way up to captain piloting ferries between the mainland and the picturesque haven of Catalina Island. The company accused him of using heroin and illegal drugs to lose weight and he was fired in 2000. His breach of contract and defamation lawsuit were dismissed, according to court papers.
Dekraai, who was divorced from his first wife, married Fournier in 2003 in Nevada after a whirlwind romance. She gave birth to a son seven months later.
The relationship soured almost immediately. Fournier told White — who was also her friend — that Dekraai held a gun to her head shortly after their wedding.
Fournier left Dekraai in December 2006 because he wasn't stable, said Tim Terbush, a friend of Fournier's and a former neighbor who knew Dekraai for years.
"His violence started to escalate, escalate, escalate and she was scared to death of him," Terbush said.
'This is the last one'
Some felt Dekraai's grandparents set the stage for his problems later in life by spoiling him and stepping in to save him when he got into trouble. His step grandfather loaned him money several times when he ran up gambling debts and would buy him anything he wanted as a child, Hinmon said.
"He's never been held accountable and he's always been bailed out of everything," he said. "He had gambling problems with bookies and I know the last check his grandfather wrote him was for $5,000 — and he wrote on the check, 'This is the last one.'"
When the step-grandfather died in 2005, Dekraai was devastated to discover he had willed half his estate to a biological daughter.
Dekraai and his mother filed a claim against the estate, but it was dropped after their attorney determined they had no standing to challenge the will, said Howard Brief, an attorney who represented the estate and gave a deposition in the case. Dekraai and his mom split their half and received roughly $400,000 each, Brief said.
By the time Dekraai received the last of the inheritance in 2009, he had much bigger problems.
While working aboard the tugboat Emma Foss in February 2007, Dekraai's leg was mangled in a mishap that crushed a fellow mate to death. He spent a month in the hospital and would never be the same again.
Debilitating pain from his injuries never went away and a doctor said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"It was always painful, it was always bothering him. They were constantly grafting tendons and ligaments and trying to stimulate the nerve, trying to get circulation going through and it never worked," said Ashley, his former boss at the sport-fishing company. "He wishes it had been amputated."
By the time he got out of the hospital, his wife had filed for divorce. He couldn't find work and had to move in with this mother. When his stepfather, Leroy Hinmon, asked him for rent, Dekraai attacked him in front of his mother and 4-year-old son.
"He was beating him up, slapping him around," Max Hinmon said. "He worked my brother over pretty good."
The police were called and Leroy Hinmon got a temporary restraining order in August 2007. Dekraai, who didn't dispute the claim that he cut and bruised the older man, was ordered to surrender any firearms and attend a year-long program for batterers.
Custody battle and accusations
While Dekraai and his ex-wife shared custody of their son, he was pushing for more time with him and more control over his rearing in what was becoming a more acrimonious situation.
The two traded accusations in court papers even as Dekraai settled into a suburban life in nearby Huntington Beach with a third wife, the woman who had been hired to care for him after his tugboat accident.
In the court filings, Dekraai said Fournier drank too much, was a bad parent and screamed at him.
She accused him of being violent, suicidal and not taking his medication. Dekraai acknowledged in a court report that he had previously been diagnosed as bipolar, said John Cate, Michelle Fournier's attorney in the custody case.
Just a month ago, Fournier told Terbush she was frightened. She told White that he had come to her salon and threatened to kill her.
"He threatened her innumerable times, innumerable times," Terbush said. "This was not a one-time thing."
On Tuesday, Dekraai and Fournier were in court for yet another custody hearing in their bitter battle over their son.
The hearing should have been routine, but Dekraai refused to accept a court-ordered report that indicated the current split was working and insisted on a trial, which was set for December, Cate said.
The next day, police say, Dekraai strapped on a bullet proof vest, took three guns and entered Salon Meritage with weapons blazing.
"It is hard to go inside the head of a madman and say what he was thinking," Cate said. "I will tell you this: you have some signs, but certainly not signs that would automatically lead you to believe he would pull off something as dastardly as this."
Associated Press Writers Amy Taxin in Santa Ana; Thomas Watkins, Brian Melley and Anthony McCartney in Los Angeles; and Noaki Schwartz in Long Beach contributed to this report.