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I Sing the Canine Electric

Remembering David Attias and Plumbing the Difference Between Insanity and Crazy


MAD MARCHNESS: It was 10 years ago that UCSB student David Attias crept out of his protective K-hole cocoon, got behind the wheel of the turbo-charged Saab his father just bought him, and left four dead bodies and bloody tire tracks through the streets of Isla Vista. To commemorate Attias’s now-infamous wild ride, there was a reunion of sorts held last week involving families of the victims, one of the survivors, a bevy of high-ranking UCSB officials, and the retired county prosecutor who lost 25 pounds putting Attias someplace where, presumably, he’ll never drive again. At the time — and in hindsight — Attias begged the urgent question, what’s the real difference between crazy and insane? A Santa Barbara jury was forced to wrestle with this one and wisely — and I’m not being sarcastic — wound up cutting the baby in half. But based on massive cuts in store for mental-health services — in the best-case scenario, $861 million will be eliminated; in the worst case, maybe twice that — it’s clear the folks in Sacramento aren’t spending any time dissecting this distinction.

Angry Poodle

Attias bugged the crap out of me. I covered his murder trial. To ensure good behavior, he’d been sedated into oblivion. But even so, there was always that hint of a smirk. I’d seen photographs of the victims’ shoes. They’d been literally knocked off their feet by the force of the collision. The laces remained tied. I still don’t know how that happens. But I was bugged more by Attias’s father, Daniel Attias, an accomplished TV director who’d, among other things, shot episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Given that Attias had wrecked the first car his father bought him — and then totaled the rental car provided in the interim — maybe a third car was not the wisest choice. Insanity, as Einstein famously said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Since the trial, I’ve developed more sympathy for Daniel Attias. Undeniably, he played his cards all wrong. But is there really a right way when you’ve been dealt five jokers? In hindsight, Attias’s father should have known better. After all, his own father was seriously bipolar. Where his father had succeeded professionally in spite of this condition — and all the oppressive, shameful stigma that carried — so, too, would his son. Even if David Attias licked the faces of total strangers as a young child and seriously tried to strangle his sister at age 13. With the right combination of meds, counseling, and a little academic success under his belt, David would find his way. He had to. The family would explode otherwise. But given Attias’s volcanic psychological history, maybe UCSB — where drug abuse all but qualified as an official intramural sport — was not the place. But UCSB got David out of the house. It got him out of town. And besides, it was a good school.

Then Attias turned 18. As one of his many psychiatrists would write, that’s past “the age of coercion.” That means David’s parents, as a matter of law, could no longer make him take his medications. As Daniel Attias would testify, he kept his son plied with cars in desperate hope of achieving the leverage that he lacked in legal authority to keep his son pharmaceutically compliant. Guess what? It didn’t work. Not only did David stop taking his medications, but he discovered the joys of ketamine, a rave drug, used primarily by veterinarians to anesthetize animals prior to surgery. It induces a profound sense of aloneness and contentment, known to users as “the K-hole.” It also can have side effects, like hallucinations and psychosis. Certainly both were on full display in the video — shot by a couple of fly-by-night documentary filmmakers who specialized in “show-me-your-tits” footage of young people run amok — capturing Attias emerging from his car the night of the slaughter. The footage of Attias proclaiming himself the Angel of Death proved absolutely pivotal to the trial’s outcome.

Eventually, Attias would be found guilty of second-degree murder, a charge that implies a degree of intentionality and awareness. But when it came to sentencing, the same jury found Attias not guilty by reason of insanity. Much has been made of the apparent contradiction between the two verdicts. To be found insane, a jury must make the legal finding that the accused is incapable of knowing the difference between right and wrong. It’s an almost impossible legal standard. As prosecuting attorney Pat McKinley noted at the time, one could be “nuttier than a fruitcake, and still not be legally insane.” Previously, Santa Barbara juries had found mass murderers who’d acted on orders issued by their TV sets failed to meet this legal standard. Certainly, the fact that Attias demanded an attorney almost immediately after being arrested suggests a degree of self-awareness incompatible with the legal definition of insanity. So, too, was his demeanor in subsequent interviews while in custody. From a strictly legal perspective, the jurors no doubt misapplied the law. Maybe they thought the law itself was crazy, which it obviously is. Maybe it was, as many have suggested, a matter of wealth: Daniel Attias could afford the best legal talent — and psychiatric experts — money can buy. My theory is it was the video. What the jurors saw was crazy doing the jitterbug waltz with insane. In any case, justice was served.

I’m not sure the same can be said of the deliberations now unfolding in Sacramento on the state budget. It’s one thing to gut mental-health funding because the state simply has no money. It’s quite another to inflict avoidable violence. Although the state has within its grasp the means to raise revenues, it appears the legislature will intentionally choose not to do so. Worse — thanks to a suicidally disciplined Republican minority — it will refuse to allow the voters even the opportunity to decide for themselves. I don’t know whether that qualifies as insane or just crazy. But it’s maddening in the extreme that Santa Barbara’s elected representative in the state Senate — Tony Strickland — has emerged as the Republican Party’s chief enforcer when it comes to just-say-no to letting the people decide. What’s he afraid of? My suggestion: Take the advice of school boardmember Kate Parker — who gave out Strickland’s phone number and urged constituents to call. That number is 965-0862. Tell him David Attias sent you.

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This article has been changed since its original posting to correct the phone number given for Tony Strickland.

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