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David Attias

Paul Wellman

David Attias


Isla Vista Shooting: Echoes of David Attias

Similarities Abound Between I.V.’s Madmen, But What Could Have Been Done?


Originally published 3:00 p.m., May 24, 2014
Updated 11:35 a.m., May 27, 2014

In the deadly aftermath of Elliot Rodger’s psychotic and suicidal shooting spree that left six others dead in Isla Vista and another 13 wounded, the muted echoes of David Attias — who killed four people in Isla Vista 12 years ago — will be bouncing off Isla Vista’s blood-stained streets for some time to come.

While authorities are still sifting through the fragments of Rodger’s life, he made clear to the world in a chilling YouTube monologue filmed the day before his rampage that he was seeking revenge upon all the women who’d never seen fit to have sex with him and all the males who had more sexual pleasure than he had. In it, Rodger, 22, bitterly lamented his virginity and expressed enraged bewilderment that women were not interested in him — “a supreme gentleman”— but were instead “throwing themselves” at “obnoxious brutes,” and he vowed, between creepy theatrical chortles, to exact lethal retribution.

Elliot Rodger
Click to enlarge photo

Elliot Rodger

In 2001, Attias, then a UCSB freshman with a long history of severe mental illness, plowed his black Saab into a crowded Isla Vista street, killing four and wounding others. Attias, who was filmed at the scene hopping around the dead bodies and proclaiming himself the “angel of death,” attributed his action to frustration over lack of sexual contact. Attias was tried for murder and achieved the rare distinction of being found not guilty by reason of insanity. Two years ago, Santa Barbara Judge Thomas Adams ruled that Attias had recovered his sanity and ordered him released from a state facility for the criminally insane. Presumably, he is still living in a supervised group home and receiving supervised therapy.

Both Attias and Rodger struggled with significant mental-health issues. Before Rodger moved to Santa Barbara from the Los Angeles area to attend Santa Barbara City College, his mother and psychiatrist had sought to set up a range of mental-health services to enable Rodger to safely navigate the challenges of a new environment. But just two days before the shooting occurred, Rodger was reportedly denied the insurance coverage to pay for such help.

In addition, the fathers of both killers were successful in the television and motion-picture industry. Daniel Attias, David’s father, was an accomplished television director. Rodger’s father, Peter Rodger, was assistant director of The Hunger Games, both critically acclaimed and commercially successful, not to mention the writer and director of a documentary about the nature of god.

For UCSB, the Attias tragedy provided a much-needed wake-up call, prompting campus officials to, among other things, take more proactive steps in providing students alternative methods of recreation and letting off steam. While some of those programs have yielded modest but steady results, events of the past year clearly demonstrate that Isla Vista remains very much an urban pressure cooker and that effective adult control is, at best, equivocal.

I.V.’s Growing Tension

This year’s much-berated Deltopia celebration, for example, erupted into an out-of-control riot seven weeks ago. To restore order, Sheriff Bill Brown had to call for backup from every nearby law enforcement agency, and his deputies used so much tear gas that they had to order more. Just four weeks before Deltopia, Sheriff’s deputies and the Isla Vista Foot Patrol found themselves forced to quell a Saturday-night mini-riot. In both instances, law enforcement officials have blamed outsiders for instigating the violence.

While such explanations are statistically correct, they fail to acknowledge the mounting tension, aggression, and sexual violence simmering throughout the campus and Isla Vista. The laissez-faire attitude of the community at large toward Isla Vista bacchanalian extravagance was at least temporarily shocked earlier this year by a pair of uncommonly violent gang rapes. And while UCSB has yet to attain the notoriety of other universities tainted by allegations of consequence-free sexual assaults, the problem clearly exists here. Already, it has drawn the attention of Janet Napolitano, the new head of the UC system.

To an exceptional degree, Isla Vista — about a square mile of densely packed and hormonally charged humanity — has always been notably disconnected from any broader urban context, a municipal orphan disowned and disavowed by any government agencies that might possibly play the role of foster parent. In fact, when the City of Goleta incorporated about 10 years ago, its founders took pains to exclude Isla Vista from the boundaries for fear that UCSB students would become enfranchised, take over the government, and enact some form of rent control.

Numbers tell only part of the story, but since Attias shocked and horrified the South Coast, UCSB has grown significantly in prestige and popularity, boasting almost as many Nobel laureates as it does drunks on a Saturday night. As the cost of attendance skyrocketed, the number of students seeking entry into classes grew. At the same time, the number of course offerings diminished, meaning more time was required for most students to complete graduation. This scenario, in turn, has ratcheted up the competition for limited housing.

SBCC vs. UCSB

While the similarities between Rodger and Attias are striking — both drove black expensive cars that were reportedly paid for by their fathers (Attias a Saab, Rodger a BMW) — there is one obvious difference. Rodger moved to Santa Barbara to enroll at Santa Barbara City College (SBCC), Attias at UCSB. This may appear a superficial distinction, but for those laboring to find long-term solutions to the urban dysfunction that is Isla Vista, it’s anything but. SBCC, now ranked the top city college in the nation — not just the state — has long been known as a backdoor into the UC system for low-achieving high school graduates. As community colleges throughout the state sought to weather the draconian budget cuts accompanying the Great Recession, they increasingly turned to recruiting out-of-state and out-of-country students to whom they could charge much higher tuition. Around town, SBCC is well-known as a magnet first for Chinese students and more recently those hailing from Sweden.

SBCC’s swelling enrollment of out-of-towners may have helped the school’s bottom line, but it’s taken a toll on Santa Barbara’s ever Darwinian rental housing market. Low-income Latinos who’ve traditionally called the lower Westside home have been feeling the pinch as area landlords have sought to maximize their investment by renting to better-heeled City College emigres instead. Likewise, the allure of Isla Vista has proved irresistible for growing legions of City College students. According to recent census reports, there are reportedly 3,000-5,000 of City College’s 23,000 students now living in Isla Vista. Certainly, the demand placed by these students on the area bus service is by far the most intense now confronting the Metropolitan Transit District.

And unlike UCSB, SBCC has never pretended it could or should do anything to offset the demand. The campus mission has always been providing education for those most in need; the school lacked the funds or resources to provide housing. Back when Marty Blum was mayor of Santa Barbara, this was a serious bone of contention between City Hall and the school. Now Blum sits on the City College board of directors and the situation hasn’t changed. If anything, it’s grown more intense. She noted when she was mayor, she’d been told that no community college addressed — however partially — the housing demand its students generated. Since then, she said, she found out that 10 community colleges have.

For the time being, SBCC President Lori Gaskin has issued an official statement expressing her grief and condolences at what’s transpired and offering counseling to students and employees who need it. Coincidentally, the shooting took place the same day as SBCC celebrated its graduation ceremonies and just one day before the campus was slated for a massive emergency-preparedness drill by multiple public-safety agencies in case of some hypothetical disaster. That disaster, tragically, was not nearly hypothetical enough. “A lone madman,” as Sheriff Bill Brown described Rodger, managed to get his hands of a semi-automatic handgun with far greater ease than his family could secure the mental-health services he so desperately needed.

What’s Next?

As with the Attias rampage, the bloodbath unleashed by Rodger will prompt another round of soul-searching as to what, if anything, can be done about Isla Vista. Sheriff Brown is no doubt correct that this sort of outburst could happen anywhere or anytime. But for some reason, they’ve been happening with greater frequency in Isla Vista.

UCSB officials sought to put a damper on the party-hearty exuberance that sends so many students to the Goleta Valley Cottage Hospital’s emergency room every weekend for alcohol poisoning. One idea was for the campus to buy up existing I.V. rental units and install resident managers to keep the residents in check. But county officials objected that would displace renters and drive up the cost of housing. As a result, the Long Range Development Plan — formulated to guide the future growth and expansion of UCSB — specifically forbade that from occurring.

One program that emerged in response to the Attias disaster was Isla Vista Arts, a campus-run effort to generate non-alcohol-fueled entertainment on weekend nights. Currently, the program funds the Magic Lantern Films series — run by D.J. Palladino, a freelance arts writer for this paper — and a comedy improv troupe that’s been meeting every Friday night at the Embarcadero Building Theater for the last 10 years.

Ellen Anderson, who is in charge of both programs, was just driving away from the Embarcadero Theater Friday night when she heard shots. “I’m from Detroit,” she said. “I know what gunfire sounds like. It was gunfire.”

She raced back to the theater and, to her great relief, discovered that the students charged with running the show had locked the doors and kept the lights off. With the exception of one comedian, they didn’t tell anyone what happened. UCSB improv artists were having a face-off, it turned out, with counterparts from Cal Poly. Normally, the show would have ended about the time the shooting started. Given that some of the shooting occurred by the new 7-Eleven right across the park from the Embarcadero Theater, it was urgent no one left.

“I was really scared,” Anderson said. “What would happen when we told people they couldn’t leave? How would they react?”

Perfectly, it would turn out. First, the small crowd of about 100-plus people (including 8-10 elementary school kids) watched a short cartoon, then they did about two more hours of improv. One woman in the audience got a text that a friend of hers was shot in the leg. Nobody panicked.

“I did get a little grouchy,” confessed Anderson. “I’d say things like, ‘How many times do I need to tell you to stay away from the window?’” About midnight, the building was unlocked, and people allowed to leave. Students were instructed to go to a nearby dorm.

“I love my students,“ Anderson gushed. “They’re so great. And I’m so incredibly sad.”

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