By Dana Feldman
SANTA ANA, California (Reuters) - A former tugboat worker pleaded guilty on Friday to first-degree murder for killing eight people in a 2011 rampage at a Southern California hair salon where his ex-wife worked, in the worst mass shooting in Orange County history.
Scott Dekraai, 44, told the judge in a Santa Ana courtroom that he was admitting to the murder charges because it was the "right thing to do." But he could still be sentenced to death in the high profile case following a penalty phase set for August.
"I think it would be fair and appropriate for you to assume the worst," Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, who will make the final decision based on the recommendation of jurors, told Dekraai.
After the hearing, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said that, despite the guilty plea, he still intended to seek capital punishment: "There's no compromise and we're not going to change our opinion."
Prosecutors say Dekraai had been locked in a bitter child custody battle with ex-wife, Michelle Fournier, 48, when, armed with three guns, he walked into Salon Meritage in Seal Beach in October 2011 and opened fire.
Fournier was killed, along with salon owner Randy Fannin, 62, and five others in the salon. Prosecutors said Dekraai shot his victims at close range, several of them multiple times as they lay dying.
Harriet Stretz, 73, who was having her hair styled by her daughter, Laura Lee Elody, survived her wounds although Elody was among those killed. After leaving the salon, Dekraai shot 64-year-old David Caouette as he sat in his sport utility vehicle parked outside the salon, prosecutors say.
Dekraai was arrested blocks from the bloody scene in the heart of Seal Beach, a town about 20 miles southeast of Los Angeles known by its residents as "Mayberry-by-the-Sea" for its bucolic, small-town atmosphere.
His guilty plea on Friday to eight counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder came just weeks ahead of the scheduled start of his trial.
"I don't believe him," said Caouette's son, Paul, of Dekraai's expression of remorse at the hearing. "I don't think he's remorseful at all. I think he's a coward."
California currently has more than 700 inmates on Death Row, but has not carried out an execution since 2006 because of a moratorium imposed by a federal judge, citing concerns raised over its lethal injection protocol.
The salon shooting ranks as the worst mass killing in Orange County's history, surpassing the seven killed and two wounded in a shooting by janitor Edward Charles Allaway at Cal State Fullerton in 1976. Allaway was found not guilty by reason of insanity and remains institutionalized.
(Writing and additional reporting by Cynthia Johnston and Dan Whitcomb; editing by Gunna Dickson)