'01 Santa Barbara killer walks free as families relive carnage 13 years later
Elliot Rodger ended his murder spree in Santa Barbara, Calif., last week by taking his own life, but a man who mounted an eerily similar attack 13 years ago survived his rampage and is now free after serving just over a decade in a mental hospital.
It was Feb. 23, 2001, when David Attias — a then-University of California-Santa Barbara freshman and son of Hollywood director Daniel Attias — plowed his turbo-charged Saab into a group of young adults in the same Isla Vista neighborhood of the coastal community, killing four and permanently injuring another before climbing atop the car and declaring himself "the Angel of Death." Charged with murder, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to a state mental institution. He was released in 2012, having been locked away for slightly more than two years for each of his dead victims.
“He’s out because he got treatment and he finally learned what he needed to say," said Sally Divis, whose son, Christopher, was just 20 when he was run down by Attias. "Do I actually think he’s safe? Not really."
All four of those killed by Attias either died instantly or before paramedics arrived. They were:
—Elie Israel, a native of Paris, was recalled as a free-spirit who rode a skateboard to work at his San Francisco photography shop;
—Ruth Levy, 20, was a student at Santa Barbara City College, and was being visited by her brother, Albert Levy, who was critically injured. Although Albert Levy's legs were crushed under Attias' car, he has since regained the ability to walk;
—Nicholas Bourdakis, who was a 20-year-old geography student at UCSB, had a beloved pet gecko and honored by his family with a scholarship fund for undergraduate geography students;
—Divis, also 20 and a student at UCSB, had graduated from Rancho Buena Vista High School just two years before he was killed. His friends recalled him as a talented graphic artist, fan of television's "The Simpsons" and Japanese anime;
While Attias' attack drew national attention, media interest was muted on Sept. 4, 2012, when California Superior Court Judge Thomas Adams — who presided over Attias' 2002 criminal trial — granted a petition for Attias to be released from Patton State Hospital in San Bernadino. He was moved to an “outlocked treatment program” under California’s Forensic Conditional Release Program (CONFREP), a controversial initiative that puts offenders once deemed criminally insane among the public once they're considered cured.
In Attias' case, he is living in a group home, and regularly visiting a separate facility for professional treatment, including twice-weekly group therapy and one-on-one sessions with a psychiatrist. He is also subject to random drug testing and searches, and if he has a relapse, he could be sent back to Patton.
“An unlocked facility allows the patient greater liberties in making personal choices for himself," California-based attorney Leo Terrell of CleartheCourt.com, said at the time. “He will have greater visitation rights and the freedom to make life choices without receiving prior approval."
Attias is believed to be living in Oxnard, but his exact whereabouts are confidential. Patton State Hospital officials refused to release any information about Attias, but Southern California criminal defense attorney David Wohl said Attias is “literally [in] a residential facility where this killer can come and go as he pleases.” He added that offenders released through CONFREP typically end up in suburban neighborhoods, where there is no legal obligation to notify neighbors.
Because Attias was found not guilty, he is not classified as a felon or required by law to notify prospective employers of his past. Yet, doubts persist about whether Attias — who immediately demanded a lawyer after being arrested — was ever really insane, and whether his time in an institution changed him.
While in the mental institution, Attias was written up for various infractions including sending a series of sexually-explicit letters to another resident's sister. On another occasion, he was pummeled by a fellow mental patient who accused him of ogling his girlfriend. However, in releasing him, Brown said Attias was not the “vacant, troubled and confused” person he was following the attacks, and attributed positive changes to the decade spent undergoing “intensive therapy and the appropriate medications.”
At the proceeding that ended in Adams' decision to free Attias from Patton, Prosecutor Paula Waldman argued that Attias would be among 58 offenders living with just four supervisors in a drug-infested neighborhood. And while Attias has not been arrested or suspected of criminal activity since leaving the mental hospital, Waldman warned the court Attias still posed a threat.
“It’s not a matter of if he will ever become violent again, but when,” Waldman said at the 2012 hearing.
"I thought that David Attias posed too much of a danger to be released into an unlocked facility," Waldman told FoxNews.com. The [victims’ families] also agreed me."
Patrick McKinley, who is now retired but was the lead prosecutor at Attias' murder trial, said the killer will never be normal.
"He will always be mentally ill, but because you have a mental illness like schizophrenia doesn't mean you're legally insane," McKinley said. "The test of sanity is a life long test, does the person know the difference between right and wrong generally and that they know what they are doing. You can have people who are very mentally ill but are not insane."
The Department of State Hospital’s website states that the goal of CONFREP is to “ensure greater public protection in California communities via an effective and standardized community outpatient treatment system.” The department claims that just six percent of attendees re-offend within two years, compared to a 27 percent recidivism rate for offenders who don't go through the program. Legal experts acknowledge those claims are hard to verify.
“Privacy laws prohibiting the release of patients’ medical records prevent the public from truly knowing the success rate of the program,” Terrell said. “The length of time spent (in the program) depends on how the patient responds to treatment.”
State taxpayers foot the bill for the program’s assessment, treatment and supervision, even if those being treated are wealthy. Attias' father, Daniel, is a successful television director whose resume includes “Ally McBeal,” “90210,” “Alias” and “True Blood.” A civil lawsuit was brought by victims' families parents against David’s parents Daniel and Diane for negligence based on the fact that they bought the car that would become a killing machine for their son even though they knew he had mental and drug problems. The suit appears to have been confidentially settled in September 2003.
Representatives for Daniel Attias did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Although the two deadly incidents were 13 years apart, the eerie similarities were not lost on the families who continue to grieve the loss of children in 2001. In addition to the sprees occurring in the same area, both killers were the sons of Hollywood directors who felt alienated socially and both used cars in their attacks.
Tony Bourdakis, father of Nicholas Bourdakis, told FoxNews.com that the May 23 attack by Rodger brought him and his wife a sickening sense of deja vu. Rodger, whose father is a movie director whose credits include work on "The Hunger Games," stabbed three roommates to death in his apartment, then shot three people at random in the idyllic community near Santa Barbara. Prior to his attack, he had posted chilling YouTube videos and a 137-page manifesto in which he said he was a virgin who had been spurned by women all his life.
“My wife said, 'My God, it’s the same situation,'” Bourdakis said. "It’s Friday night, just like the first time. It’s the 23rd of the month. He essentially focused the same way David Attias did. "I think [the similarity] really has to be looked into," he said. "It really scares the hell out of me.”
Although Bourdakis said the "wound never closed," Sally Divis offered some hope to the loved ones of the six people Rodger killed.
“Hang in there day by day, that is all you can do,” Divis said. “Every day you get up it is the first thing on your mind and the last thing at the end of the day. But one day you get up and it is the second thing, and that is when you realize it does get better.”
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Danielle Jones-Wesley and Joshua Rhett Miller contributed to this report.