The Death Belt


A killing comes home


The sister of a murder victim struggles to find meaning at the epicenter of the fight over the death penalty in the United States


First in a series


When Bethany Webb lost her sister in a 2011 mass shooting, she experienced a “rage that was unknown to me.” But when it came time to sentence her sister’s killer, Webb told prosecutors she didn’t want the death penalty. (Rachel Fobar/The Medill Justice Project)

By Rachel Fobar
The Medill Justice Project
Updated: 8:23 p.m., Sept. 14, 2017

SEAL BEACH, Calif.—Armed with three semiautomatic handguns, a man in a bulletproof vest walks into a beauty salon. He approaches his ex-wife and says, “You wanted this.” Then he shoots her.

He fires again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. Six people, dead. He comes across Laura Webb Elody in the back hallway. She reaches for the bathroom door. Locked. Others have barricaded themselves inside. Fearful, they won’t open the door.

They hear Laura begging for her life: “You don’t have to do this. Please don’t shoot me.”

Those are Laura’s last words. She was 46.

As the killer walks out of the salon, he sees a man in a green Range Rover park next to his car. He shoots the man and drives away.

When arrested moments later, he confesses, telling police, “I know what I did.” He and his ex-wife were fighting for custody over their 8-year-old son. The rest of the victims, he says, were “collateral damage.”

As the number of death sentences issued in the United States has steadily declined since the late 1990s, a pocket of America designated the new “Death Belt” has bucked the national trend. This new capital of capital punishment isn’t Texas, Florida or other states in or near the Deep South, the regions historically known for their long lines of prisoners on death row. It’s California. With this series, The Medill Justice Project features stories about the people of Southern California whose everyday lives are impacted by sentences of death.

To Bethany Webb, her little sister Laura was so much more: her best friend. Six years after the shooting and at the age of 55, Beth still wears Laura’s light blue high school class ring on a chain, a cherished millstone around her neck. Beth still talks to Laura about everyday life—even though, she says, “she doesn’t talk back” anymore.

“It wasn’t her time,” Beth says. “She wasn’t ready to go. I could feel her screaming to come back.”

Beth seethes, “There is a rage that was unknown to me.”

The October 2011 massacre at the Salon Meritage in Seal Beach, California, was one of the worst mass shootings in state history, leaving eight dead and a trail of questions about a savage act of random violence.

In 2014, the killer pleaded guilty to eight counts of first-degree murder. The case continues to play out: In August, a Superior Court judge ruled the killer cannot receive the death penalty, citing misconduct by prosecutors and sheriff’s officials. But if history is any guide, the fight isn’t over yet as prosecutors have been pursuing the death penalty in this case for years and may appeal. The California Attorney General did not respond to requests for comment. Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, who pursued the death penalty until he was taken off the case in 2015, declined to comment but his chief of staff, Susan Schroeder says, “[O]f course our hearts go out to the victims … There’s [sic] certain crimes that are committed with such a malignant heart, and they’re so callous and cruel that the only just penalty is the death penalty.”

The state is home to the largest death row in the Western Hemisphere with nearly 750 inmates condemned to die. California sentenced more people to death last year than any other—nine—five more than Texas or Ohio. The majority of those in California came from southern counties, ground zero for death penalty sentences in the United States, one of 23 countries that carried out executions last year, along with countries like China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan.

California hasn’t executed an inmate since 2006 but a recent state Supreme Court ruling has upheld a voter referendum aimed at accelerating capital punishment. Executions in California could resume within “a matter of months,” says Kent Scheidegger, who wrote a portion of the proposition. “We’re certainly pleased that the families who’ve waited for justice for far too long can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel,” says Scheidegger, legal director of the pro-death penalty Criminal Justice Legal Foundation.

For Beth, who has enmeshed herself in the heated death penalty debate, the execution of her sister’s killer would send a message—the wrong one, in her view. With executions, we as a society are sinking to the level of the killers themselves, she says; we can’t sanction murder with more murder.

After one of the worst mass shootings in California history, people descended on the Salon Meritage in Seal Beach, Calif., with flowers, photos and handwritten notes. (Photo courtesy: John Jeans)

“There is no justice,” Beth says bitterly. She adds, “Murdering someone else in my sister’s name would be defiling everything she was.”

Beth is quick to note she hasn’t forgiven the killer. “I feel no compassion for him,” she says. “I don’t forgive him … I don’t forgive and I don’t have to.”

At first, nightmares plagued Beth as she pictured Laura’s last moments and the terror she felt. For a time, Beth drank during the day—a lot of wine, sometimes Jägermeister. A doctor, she says, put her on Xanax for anxiety. Soon after the shootings, Beth went to 24 Hour Fitness to cancel Laura’s and her family gym membership. When she tried to explain why, the words couldn’t come out. Beth sometimes goes out to her garage, where she keeps a box of Laura’s clothes. She inhales deeply and part of Laura is still here—the Tide detergent, the Givenchy Amarige perfume—on the clothes, especially a T-shirt Laura had worn but never got a chance to wash.

Says Beth: “Sometimes I can go in and just close my eyes and find a piece of her.”

A reckoning

Beth, a loan officer and real estate agent, lives in the quiet seaside community of Huntington Beach on a leafy street lined with American flags. A gray 2010 Ford Flex sits in her driveway displaying two bumper stickers on the back window: one, a photo of Laura on her wedding day with the words “In Loving Memory” printed under her smiling face. Another implores people to end “the Costly, Failed Death Penalty!” The car was Laura’s.

Bethany Webb gazes at her sister’s high school class ring, which she wears on a chain around her neck. (Rachel Fobar/The Medill Justice Project)

The death penalty is arbitrary, Beth says, and whether someone will be executed often depends on which state, or even in which county a crime is committed. The poor and people of color are more likely to be sentenced to death, she notes. And although there is no doubt about the perpetrator in this case, Beth knows the death penalty leaves open the possibility of executing innocent people. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit organization that distributes information about capital punishment, there is strong evidence that at least 11 innocent people have been executed in the United States. A 2014 study in the National Academy of Sciences estimated that as many as 50 innocent people have been executed in the last 35 years.

“[A] sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole is a very harsh and certain punishment,” says Ana Zamora, the criminal justice policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “…With the death penalty, it’s final, you know, and there’s no room afterward, you know, after an execution, to exonerate somebody who might be innocent.”

Beth also knows a death sentence sometimes means anything but. Indeed, many of the state’s condemned inmates have been on death row for more than 20 or 30 years, appealing their cases.

Beth has spent years seeing the killer’s face, sitting just feet from the man who took Laura’s life—and so much of her own—fearing he will simply die of natural causes on death row, as more than 70 condemned California inmates have done since the state’s death penalty was reinstated in 1978.

Beth would rather he receive a life sentence. “Every time he’s in court, he gets the attention [he wants],” she says. “… Otherwise he’s just sitting in a cell, forced to reckon.”

Still here

In 2013, Beth got a notification on her phone. Her heart surged. There was another shooter on the loose.

It was a little more than a year after the Salon Meritage shooting, but she was right back in the moment, reliving her nightmare. The alert notified her that the shooter indicated he might target students at William T. Newland Elementary School. Her 9-year-old son’s school.

Even though police were patroling the area, Beth drove to her son’s elementary school every day for two weeks, sometimes more than once a day, until the man shot himself during a police standoff.

Bethany Webb, right, and her sister, Laura Webb Elody, in a lighter moment. They were die-hard Oakland Raiders fans, and they would talk on the phone during games, screaming when the team scored. (Photo courtesy: John Jeans)

Beth remembers a time when she wasn’t like this—so vigilant—when she wasn’t afraid to ride motorcycles with her husband and when holidays weren’t painful reminders of what she’d lost. Most people can’t say their lives changed in a second, she says, but hers did.

“I am never going to be as happy or as whole as before that moment,” she says.

Nor will Hattie Stretz, Beth and Laura’s mother. Hattie was getting her nails done in the salon the day of the shootings. She too was shot and left for dead but survived the gunshot by shielding her chest with her left arm. She thinks of her children, how Beth took Laura’s death so hard. Beth did so much with her sister. They watched “General Hospital” together. They talked on the phone during Raiders and Dodgers games. They lived together for a while. Just after the murders, Hattie, now 79, would wonder why things turned out like they did.

“That was really difficult, you know, at first, to wonder why I’m the oldest person there and I’m the only one that survived and why the other ones didn’t,” she says. “… If you believe in God, as I do, and in Jesus, ours is not to reason why.”

Beth doesn’t believe what happened was part of God’s plan. “I’m sorry, I don’t think God was in the [salon] that day,” she says.

Beth tried counseling a couple of times, but talking about her pain couldn’t bring Laura back. She’s stopped drinking and isn’t taking Xanax anymore, but her husband, John Jeans, says she is still sometimes too depressed to get out of bed.

“There’s a big hole in her,” he says.

“There isn’t really anything to fix me,” she says. “I don’t want to be fixed.”

Being fixed would be a betrayal to Laura’s memory: “I want to feel her,” she says. “I want her to know that she will be loved as long as I’m here.”

No forgiveness

“I’m sorry. I’m very, very sorry.”

The words came from Laura’s killer, crying and shackled in a courtroom during a June hearing. As Beth addressed the court and remembered how he had called her sister “collateral damage,” he spoke. It was believed to be the first time he’s publicly expressed remorse for the killings.

“You can’t give me back what you took,” Beth told him. “I’m sorry, you can’t apologize for this.”

Weeks later, she still didn’t know what to make of his apology.

“That was weird, because him being a monster is much easier,” she says. “And he was for years.”

Bethany Webb, left, says Laura Webb Elody, who was her maid of honor more than a decade ago, was her best friend. (Photo courtesy: John Jeans)

Beth believes her sister’s murderer killed in part for the notoriety, so she refuses to speak his name. He was a tugboat crewman. He grew up in nearby Long Beach. A career-ending accident in 2007 left him disabled. To Beth, his name isn’t important. It’s hard enough to see him—in an orange jumpsuit with thinning hair and dark-rimmed glasses—in court where his defense team treats him like a human being, she says, putting a hand on his shoulder, laughing with him. It’s a level of respect he doesn’t deserve, she says, and it’s Laura whose memory deserves to be honored.

“I wish people talked about her more than they talked about him,” she says.

Beth wants people to remember a sister who surfed and rode motorcycles, loved shopping and listened to Guns N’ Roses. She can still hear the way Laura jokingly used to answer her cellphone, since the name would show up backwards on caller ID: “Hello, Webb, Beth!”

With her long dark hair, gentle brown eyes and big, slightly mischievous smile, people said Laura looked like actress Julia Roberts, but “[Laura] thought she was cuter,” Beth says, laughing. Laura had a way with strangers; once she made a friend in a bathroom when they stopped for food on a trip up the coast.

Beth and Hattie remember most the little things about Laura, how she loved to bake, so much so that Beth never dared to make cake in her life until Laura was gone. On her birthday in 2011, less than two weeks before she was killed, Laura spent part of her day baking a cake for Beth’s son, whose birthday was the next day. Laura was soft. She couldn’t bring herself to watch the movie Hotel Rwanda. Too heartbreaking. And even though the last moments of her life are what some people remember most, Beth laments, Laura was so much more.

Dragonflies

Bethany Webb doesn’t often come to the memorial, which lists the victims’ names, including her sister’s, because it reminds her of what she’s lost. (Rachel Fobar/The Medill Justice Project)

Overlooking the deep blue ocean and white sand dotted with colorful beach umbrellas, Beth sits quietly but doesn’t feel her sister’s presence. There, in front of her, is the heart-shaped Seal Beach memorial with a plaque listing the names of the eight people killed in 2011.

“I don’t come here often,” Beth says.

She struggles to find meaning in what happened.

“Nothing good, nothing beautiful came out of this,” she says, crying. “… It was a selfish human decision by a selfish human.”

A blue kite flies overhead.

“Is that a dragonfly?” she wonders.

A dragonfly followed her car the day before. Dragonflies, she says, are a sign of a connection with the afterlife.

One Response to The Death Belt

  1. Joni Nichols says:

    Bethany’s strength,vulnerability, determination and candor have been important teachers for me this this past year. In honor of her beliefs and Laura’s memory I support her stance that life imprisonment is the correct sentence.

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