Seal Beach is one of the most charming and peaceful communities on the California coastline. I am lucky enough to have practiced podiatric medicine here for 30 years. Located on the famous Pacific Coast Highway, my office is situated just two blocks from the ocean and is part of a unique commercial center that contains a combination of professional offices upstairs and restaurants and beauty salons downstairs. Our center is a vibrant community of private business and professionals who know each other well and commonly refer clients to one another. It is truly an idyllic place to work.
All of this changed on the afternoon of Oct.12 when a gunman entered Salon Meritage, located downstairs from my office, and methodically killed eight innocent people in a matter of minutes.
News organizations around the world broadcast this horrific mass murder that occurred in Seal Beach. I was grateful for the huge response from my friends and colleagues expressing concern for my safety and the well being of my staff. Fortunately, I had just left my office about 10 minutes before the shooting started. I found out later that I had walked through the parking lot right in front of the gunman who sat waiting in his car before his attack. Unfortunately, my staff did witness the gunfire and saw multiple victims running out of the salon. They saw another unfortunate victim bleed to death inside his car before paramedics could save him.
When it ended, all of us dreaded hearing the names of the victims as we were sure that we would know many of them.
Indeed, most of the victims were employees of the salon who were well known to the tenants of our building. In my opinion, one of the most tragic stories involved one of my own patients, Hattie Stretz, who recently retired as a registered nurse. Hattie was the supervisor of the outpatient surgery department at Los Alamitos Medical Center in California where I perform most of my surgeries. She asked me to correct her bunions shortly after she retired so she could become more mobile and travel with her husband. On the day of the mass murders, Hattie was having her hair styled by her daughter, Laura Elody. The gunman killed Laura right in front of Hattie’s eyes and then turned the gun on Hattie.
Miraculously, Hattie is the sole survivor of the shootings that day. However, she now lives with the horror of seeing all those people slain, including her own daughter.
Amid all the speculation about how this event could have been prevented, I have a few observations. This senseless act of violence had nothing to do with Seal Beach or with beauty salons. It was an isolated case of an unstable individual venting his rage over an ongoing custody battle with his ex-wife. Could better gun control laws have prevented this massacre? Experts say that this killer could have obtained a permit for a license under the most stringent laws ever proposed.
The real problem here is the failure of our system and our society to adequately identify people who suffer from mental illness and who repeatedly make threats to harm themselves and others. This has been the common trait of many of the mass murderers in the United States over the past decade. There is a fine line, however, in determining the difference between a normal expression of anger compared to a real threat of violence.
The shooter in the Seal Beach massacre had been a patient in our office several times during the past five years. None of us and none of his neighbors ever detected anything about this individual that would indicate he had the potential to commit such a horrific crime. That is the frightening part of this story. We just do not know when such a catastrophe could happen again.