When longtime friends of Scotty Dekraai saw him being hauled away by police on TV Wednesday, they scarcely recognized him at first.
Gone was the fit and endearing Wilson High grad who fished the local waterfront and worked port docks. In his place stood a disheveled, aged, perhaps bloated figure, accused of gunning down his ex-wife and eight others at a Seal Beach hair salon.
Interviewed late Wednesday, friends and a former boss recalled the old Dekraai as a passionate sportfishing captain who worked waterfront jobs so dirty and demanding that you had to love fishing and the ocean to do them. But it was on the water, they said, that the seeds of Wednesday's unfathomable destruction might have been sown.
In 2007, Dekraai was involved in a gruesome tugboat accident that killed deckhand Piper Cameron -- cutting her in two as Dekraai tried to save her -- and nearly severed Dekraai's legs, according to friends and news accounts.
"I saw him two years later, and he was like a ghost of who he was," a former co-worker recalled.
Another friend said Dekraai "was just never the same after the accident. It physically destroyed him ... and it emotionally devastated him. Piper was like his little sister ... and he could not save her."
Aside from family, nobody knew Dekraai--an embattled, thrice-married father so disabled he needed a caretaker--longer than Don Ashley. Widely known among anglers as the owner of the Pierpoint Landing charter operation, Ashley had gone to Rogers Middle School and Wilson High with Scotty's parents.
When Scotty was a young teen, Ashley put him to work on the docks of his charter business. After graduating Wilson High, class of 1987, Scotty rose to 2nd captain--meaning he ran the vessel sometimes--and delighted customers and crew. "You could just tell how much he loved what he was doing," said one friend.
In an odd twist of fate, when Ashley lived on 14th Street in Seal Beach, one of his neighbors was the woman who would eventually become Dekraai's second wife.
"Hey, I married your former neighbor Michelle," Dekraai told Ashley years later, when the two men bumped into each other after a long absence.
Michelle was six years older than Dekraai and already had two children when they met. Together they would have a son. But in 2007, not long after the tugboat mishap, Dekraai filed for divorce. The boy became the epicenter of a lingering custody feud some believe sparked Wednesday's shooting.
Passionate, Emotional and Artistic
Megan, a cop who asked that her last name be withheld, was a teenager when she worked beside the avid fisherman everyone knew as Scotty. She said he treated her like a little sister "and my dad like his own, calling and checking on him."
Dekraai was passionate, emotional and artistic -- a painter who did "squidlike" abstracts, she said. He also owned a clothing company called Bendo that made T-shirts "everyone wanted to wear." It was a sideline for seven years, she said.
"He was just a pleasure to be with, to work with," said Megan. When she got into law enforcement about a decade ago and Dekraai went on to commercial and industrial boating, she saw him less frequently.
But her best friend was one of Michelle's salon clients -- until "things got so tense between Scotty and Michelle that she [the friend] went somewhere else. She didn't want to be in the middle of it."
Jekyll and Hyde
One of Michelle's former salon co-workers described him as mean to Michelle -- and odd. She said other salon workers were afraid of Dekraai's anger and temper.
Dekraai's friends said they too witnessed or heard about DeKraai's screaming matches with Michelle.
"When he and Michelle got divorced, it was ugly afterward," Ashley said.
On his street in Huntington Beach, however, Dekraai was considered friendly and thoughtful.
“I just waved at him this morning on my way to work, and he seemed fine,” said DeKraii’s next-door neighbor, Stephanie Malchow. “When I came home, I didn’t know what had happened until I saw police digging through our trash.”
It’s hard to reconcile the image of Orange County’s worst mass murder with the friendly neighbor who shared gardening tips and plants, gave birthday gifts to newborns and joined the Neighborhood Watch program, said Malchow.
“I don’t want people to think he is just an evil monster. He’s a nice guy, but he must have snapped,” she said. “If he was in a custody dispute, that would explain why he snapped. He loves his little boy more than anything else in the world.”
DeKraai doted on his son, playing with him in the front yard and worrying when the boy went to stay with his ex-wife. He spoke bitterly about her to Malchow. He said he didn’t trust her parenting, and complained she did things like drop their son off at school too early in the morning.
“His son is such a sweet little boy and an innocent in all this. It’s so sad to think that he is going to suffer the most out of everyone. He is just a poor kid, not even 9, and his family is gone from him,” said Malchow. “He’ll never be able to get far enough away from all this. He’ll be that kid at school who all the kids point at and say, 'That’s the kid whose dad did that horrible thing.' ”
DeKraai recently married his third wife, Mindy, in the backyard of their Huntington Beach home and invited the neighbors.
Friends said the couple met after his tugboat mishap. Dekraai could not drive immediately afterward, so the company provided a caretaker. He fell in love with her.
After moving to their current neighborhood, the couple quickly became popular for various thoughtful gestures, said Malchow. When DeKraai went fishing, he shared his catch with neighbors. And when Malchow left her garage door open, it was Dekraai who knocked on her door and pointed it out, warning about burglars. Even the succulents lining Malchow’s house are from cuttings DeKraai shared.
“I can’t make sense out of any of this,” said Malchow. “I still think he is a nice guy, but just when you think you know someone, this happens.”
-- Patch columnist Philip Friedman contributed to this story.