David Attias, pictured here in 2012, is testifying this week before Judge Thomas Adams to state he is sane, 21 years after mowing down four people in Isla Vista with his car. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Twenty-one years to the day after plowing his father’s car into the crowded streets of Isla Vista — killing four people on the spot and a fifth who would die years later — David Attias stood in front of Judge Thomas Adams and explained the steps he’s taken to restore his sanity. Attias, now 39, remains the only defendant within living memory to be found not guilty by reason of insanity in a murder trial in Santa Barbara County. 

Attias spent 10 years locked up in the State of California’s Patton psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane; since then, he’s lived in Oxnard under varying intensities of supervision by a state agency known as CONREP (Conditional Release Program), charged with ensuring Attias takes his medications, gets therapy, and lives a life sufficiently regimented and structured that psychotic explosions like the one that rocked Isla Vista on February 23, 2001, do not occur again. 

Attias is now petitioning Judge Adams to find his sanity restored, meaning he would no longer have to check in with state officials, follow their rules, or allow them to show up unannounced and search his apartment and person if they felt it was warranted. Opposing this petition is not just Santa Barbara prosecutor Maggie Charles, but Attias’s caseworkers with CONREP. The trial started earlier this week and is expected to wind up by the middle of next week. 

Dressed crisply in a blue suit, blue button-down shirt, and necktie, Attias found himself testifying in front of the judge who presided over his initial trial in 2002 and later over the subsequent one that led to his release from Patton 10 years later. Attias’s testimony was muffled by the black facemask he wore. He was eager to answer questions from his attorney, Jack Earley, who also represented Attias during his initial trial. His challenge is to persuade Judge Adams that he poses no risk of falling off his treatment regimen — four therapy sessions a week, medications for bipolar disorder, and a trip to his psychiatrist once every two months to make sure his medications are properly adjusted. 

It’s also to convince Adams that he’s able to navigate the frustrations of an unsupervised  life without taking to drink or various drugs, both of which were seen as exacerbating factors to his long history of serious mental illness that culminated with the psychotic episode of 2001, in which he screamed, “I am the angel of death,” as he got out of his car.

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Attias testified he’s spent the past nine years living in Oxnard. He lives in an apartment in a large apartment complex with a cat. He does not drive and has no interest, he stated, in ever getting behind the wheel of a car “based on what happened.”

He now works for T-Mobile. Before that, he worked for Sears, where he was a top salesperson. Getting a job was challenging, he told Adams. Anyone could Google who he was and what he did. He understood how people might react to him. “I have these same feelings about myself.” 

Attias stressed the extent to which he’s committed to his sobriety and treatment. He would never have a friend who drank, he said. He’s learned how to address problems openly and directly, he stated, and has encouraged friends and family members to raise issues with him in a direct and forthright manner lest they fester. “Every time I have a problem, I admit it,” he said. “It’s my top priority to eliminate it.”

Attias said he’s always worked and paid his own bills, never relying on his father, noted television director Daniel Attias, for support. He acknowledged that he still has social problems and has a hard time making friends. He goes to 12-step programs for substance-abuse issues and has a sponsor. Currently, if he wants to leave Oxnard to visit his family in Los Angeles, he has to clear it first with administrators with CONREP.  Despite his difficulties with interpersonal relationships, Attias has managed to strike up a relationship with a Cambodian woman for the past two months; she testified on his behalf, as did his father and a mental-health professional.

Attias is scheduled to take the stand again on Thursday. After that, it’s expected that the prosecution will call witnesses for CONREP, who are expected to testify that Attias has made significant progress but still is not ready to be declared sane.

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