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Tuesday, December 11 , 2018, 8:45 am | Fair 42º


Bill Macfadyen: Mass Murder in Isla Vista, and the Stories Behind the Story

Except for an apparent hoax, NoozWeek’s Top 5 is all a killing zone this time

There were a record 239,552 people who read Noozhawk this past week. With two days to go in the month of May, our readers have demolished the traffic records we set just last month for readers, pageviews and unique visitors. In fact, three of the first five months of 2014 have been record months for us.

It won’t surprise you that eight of our top 10 stories this week are from the deadly Isla Vista rampage, as are 17 of our top 20 and 21 of our top 25.

We’re very appreciative for all of the enthusiastic support and engagement we have from our readers, and are especially gratified for the tips we regularly receive. As the violence unfolded the night of May 23, I was deluged with texts, phone calls, emails and Facebook messages, and I hope that I acknowledged every one.

If I did overlook you, please know it wasn’t intentional, and that we’re grateful for your efforts to keep us ahead of the news.

Most important, I want to give a shout-out to Team Noozhawk, which actually was flying without a couple of raptors last weekend. Executive editor Tom Bolton did an amazing job — on hardly any sleep — as he boomeranged from the crime scenes to a repeatedly delayed middle-of-the-night news conference at the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department to tracking down leads and sources.

Tom’s corroboration of critical facts set the 24/7 Noozhawk apart from some of the less conscientious media that were supposedly covering the same story but seemed to have wildly diverging accounts from ours — or simply no account at all.

Tom was joined in Isla Vista that Friday night by Noozhawk contributors Peter Hartmann of Urban Hikers and Zack Warburg. Amid the fog of war, as it were, Peter and Zack were able to provide important information and confirm details we were not yet able to get from official sources.

Just before midnight, my son, Will Macfadyen, quickly sleuthed out the identity of the alleged killer, Elliott Rodger; found his creepy collection of YouTube videos and his Facebook page packed with poor-quality selfies; and assembled an impressive dossier on the members of his blended Hollywood family.

The next morning, Tom was joined by our Lara Cooper, who spent a long day on the streets of Isla Vista, where shock and raw emotions tumbled together in a powerful undercurrent. Our newest team member, Josh Molina of Mission & State, pitched in that evening to cover the candlelight vigil that grew to more than 3,000 people as it stretched between the UC Santa Barbara campus and Anisq’Oyo’ Park.

For Josh, the circumstances evoked eerie similarities to an Isla Vista story he covered for the daily newspaper we all used to work for back in early 2001. Just before midnight on that crisp Feb. 23, he had been the first reporter on the scene of the carnage wreaked by UCSB freshman David Attias, who plowed his speeding car into a crowd of students, killing four of them.

On Friday night, we also sent out several text alerts to our Hawks Club members, keeping them updated on the rapidly developing events. In all, I think we sent seven texts in 24 hours. If you’d like to get on this exclusive list, click here to become a Hawks Club member or scroll down the page for more information.

Finally, since we all know many of the same details by now, I’m going to do something different this week and share some back stories and observations of my own. As always, your comments are welcome and encouraged.

1. Isla Vista Shooting Rampage Leaves 7 Dead, 7 Hospitalized

Tom Bolton, Peter Hartmann and Zack Warburg were already out the door on public-safety scanner reports of multiple drive-by shootings in Isla Vista when I got the first text from my friend, Kristen Miller, who lives in Storke Ranch, a mile from the scene. She wanted to know what I knew as she and her family had heard what they thought were gunshots followed immediately by nonstop sirens.

As is often the case, I didn’t actually know anything. And suddenly I was feeling quite vulnerable as we had a couple of reporters out of town for the Memorial Day weekend and I wasn’t aware that Tom had already returned home from a family dinner.

Official information was understandably hard to come by, and media accounts were all over the place: One dead, two dead, three dead, seven dead. Two gunmen, one gunman. Two crime scenes, three crime scenes. Suspects in custody, suspect in custody, one suspect shot. The chaos was to be expected.

Fortunately, I was able to reach Zack, who gave me enough details for a quick story, which was posted at 10 p.m., about 30 minutes after the public carnage began and 20 minutes after we later learned it had ended. He personally had seen four yellow tarps covering dead bodies and listed the street names and block numbers.

Within the hour I had gotten the same information from Peter and, by that time, Tom, a real reporter, was already writing through my initial account with an astonishingly complete set of facts.

It would be several hours before we learned there were three additional victims, found at what was believed to be the suspect’s apartment. When Sheriff Bill Brown made the announcement at his early Saturday news conference, there was an audible gasp from the assembled reporters.

Along with witness accounts of abject terror, anguish and bewilderment, we also were told about acts of heroism that deserve far wider recognition.

Although we were not immediately able to track down those responsible, one involved a clerk at the 7-Eleven at 6545 Trigo Road who ran out to retrieve a wounded woman while the gunman sprayed bullets at sheriff’s deputies nearby. The clerk and a colleague then hid the woman and 35 other young people in the back of the store until authorities secured the area. Click here for John Palminteri’s interview of one of the clerks for our partner, KEYT News.

Meanwhile, a handful of commenters — oddly — took umbrage at us for daring to include a reference to the Deltopia rioting in early April. Although the reasoning is hard to follow, I’m guessing they thought it unfair for us to link one violent act to ... another violent act?

Personally, I think the linkage is not only fair but entirely justified. When the bullets stopped flying Friday night, the entire spree — which stretched over several blocks of a heavily congested area during prime party time — took just eight minutes. And at at least two points along the drive-by gunman’s unpredictable route, sheriff’s deputies on foot exchanged fire with him, potentially diverting his attention from shooting other victims.

Our prayers go out to the families of the six dead and the 13 other people shot or injured, but is it not likely that a stepped-up law enforcement presence in the wake of Deltopia had something to do with limiting the casualties?

So far, our first-night story has been read more than 132,000 times.

2. Elliot Rodger’s ‘Retribution’ Video

If you’re like me, it wasn’t long into the killer’s homemade “Day of Retribution” video — at about the point he makes his first attempt at a diabolical laugh that instead comes across as overly rehearsed — that you conclude he’s a pathetic, misogynistic egomaniac. Sadly, since nearly everyone watched the video after he carried out his murderous rampage, viewers also knew he was a homicidal, pathetic, misogynistic egomaniac. That’s the truly chilling aspect.

What’s curious to me is just who did see any of his video creations before he embarked on his killing spree? Specifically, his parents, therapists and law-enforcement types. We’ll most likely never know the answer but, having watched a couple of his other performances, I’m hardly surprised it escalated past the point of no return. But what do I know? I’m just a cynical journalist, not a psychologist.

As with Noozhawk’s Deltopia reference, I did hear from a couple of readers — including a sheriff’s detective — who asked me to remove the video from our site. The specific reasons weren’t uniform, but the requests were sincere and made out of concern for public safety and, in at least one case, Noozhawk’s reputation.

We took them very seriously, discussed the points made, but in the end it was my decision to leave the video posted. I believe that, within the context of our overall reporting, it was an important element in understanding the killer’s motivation — however insane.

At any rate, five days after we posted the video, Vimeo removed it from our channel, claiming it was a terms-of-use violation since we did not create it and did not hold the rights to run it. While we believe Noozhawk’s usage is covered under the Fair Use Doctrine, and have so asserted our position, we’ve already taken a shower and moved on.

And if you’ll indulge me an aside, I feel it necessary to defend the news media in these types of situations. It’s not uncommon for our industry to be accused of sensationalism and of providing road maps to be followed by disturbed, impressionable individuals on their own twisted journeys to infamy.

While my profession has no shortage of lazy, sloppy, irresponsible and ratings-driven hacks, the real culprit here is the popular culture. I don’t think the Isla Vista killer was drawing inspiration from news sites like Noozhawk.

Rather, I suspect he was feeding on a steady diet of what passes for modern entertainment — like the gory movies made by his own father and violent, desensitizing video games in which there truly are no consequences for bad choices, the guy wielding the joystick holds absolute power over life and death, and everyone starts over with a simple game reset.

In another context entirely, this week I heard a Westmont College student describe one of the most important lessons he had learned from his Westmont education, which taught him how to “think of this world without me at the center of it.”

Had someone taken the time to impart such profound wisdom to our self-indulgent killer with the entitlement complex, UCSB students George Chen, Katie Cooper, Cheng Yuan Hong, Chris Michaels-Martinez, Weihan Wang and Veronika Weiss would be alive today.

3. Gunman in Isla Vista Shooting Rampage Described as ‘Severely Mentally Disturbed’

While the focus for the foreseeable future is rightly going to be on the overall issue of mental illness, warning signs and intervention, knowing what we all know now, it’s also fair to ask who didn’t see this coming?

I think it’s also fair to ask why the killer’s parents thought it was such a good idea to send an emotionally fragile young man — who reportedly had been in therapy since he was 8 years old — to go live in a hedonistic college town 100 miles from home, all by his lonesome and with no adult supervision.

In what universe is that responsible parenting? Other than the one David Attias’ parents live in, of course.

One could argue — as his parents’ legal and public relations representatives no doubt will when the civil suits are filed — that the killer was of legal age, and a grown man at 22. All true, of course.

But, according to Santa Barbara City College records, he had last completed a course in 2011, when he took a grand total of three. Since then, he had been an occasional student, sporadically enrolling in classes only to drop them or just disappear.

Meanwhile, although apparently jobless, he was living in a furnished apartment in Isla Vista, driving a $60,000-plus BMW coupe, appears to have had all the latest technology, and had money to buy food, clothes, video games and semiautomatic weapons.

Just a typical 22-year-old, right? No. Not even in Santa Barbara.

4. Call Reporting Shooting on Arroyo Road Near Goleta Deemed a Hoax

A reported murder-suicide at a residence east of San Marcos High School sparked a massive law-enforcement response May 29, but the call appears to have been a hoax.

According to Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Kelly Hoover, a phone call came in to the department’s employee line — not 9-1-1 — from an out-of-town area code about 11:30 a.m. She said the male caller said he had murdered his wife and child, was going to burn down the house in the 300 block of Arroyo Road, and then commit suicide.

The neighborhood off Auhay Drive was flooded with law enforcement, including a helicopter and SWAT team, as well as county firefighters.

Hoover said the residents of the house were unaware such a call had been made. Although visibly shaken, they told our Giana Magnoli they were all fine.

“This appears to be a hoax,” Hoover said. “It’s an incredibly cruel trick to play in light of what occurred this weekend.”

The incident is under investigation.

5. Key Questions Remain About Isla Vista Mass Murder and Its Victims

For all we do know about the mass murder in Isla Vista, there are even more questions about what we don’t know. Our Tom Bolton explored a few more in a May 26 follow-up story, three days after the rampage.

George Chen, Cheng Yuan Hong and Weihan Wang were all found stabbed to death at what reportedly was a horrific crime scene inside the killer’s apartment at the Capri complex on Seville Road.

Chen, Hong and the killer were all listed on the lease, but Hong and the killer were known to not get along. Earlier this year, the killer made a citizen’s arrest of Hong, who allegedly had stolen three candles from him. Hong apparently had planned to move out at the end of the month.

Hong and Wang were 20, while Chen was 19. How could the killer, who was a slight little guy, have overpowered and stabbed to death the three men without causing some sort of struggle or commotion, or at least one of them escaping? Were they killed in their sleep? And when? Could it have been the night before?

Also unknown is when the killer’s divorced parents became aware of his deadly plans, and when they alerted authorities.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the killer’s mother, Chin Rodger of West Hills in the San Fernando Valley, was contacted by one of her son’s therapists about an email he had sent out that fateful Friday night that included his bitter, 141-page screed in which he vowed to slaughter an array of perceived enemies. According to the Times, she read part of it and alerted her ex-husband, Hollywood director Peter Rodger of Woodland Hills, who was at dinner with his family.

At some point that night, the parents met up and drove to Isla Vista, but they were too late. Their son had sent his final email to them both and to his therapists at 9:17 p.m. — 10 minutes before the shooting started.

» Click here for a Noozhawk photo gallery from the Isla Vista rampage’s first night.

» Click here for a Noozhawk photo gallery of the day after.

» Click here for a Noozhawk photo gallery of the UCSB memorial service.

» Click here for a Noozhawk photo gallery from an Isla Vista prayer service of healing.

                                                                        •        •

After the week we’ve had, let’s all go jump on the bed to clear our heads. If you don’t get a bounce from models Ellie Gonsalves, Sheridyn Fisher and Lauren Waugh — and the Flight of the Conchords — watch it again.

(Ellie Gonsalves video via Instagram)

                                                                  •        •        •

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— Bill Macfadyen is Noozhawk’s founder and publisher. Contact him at [email protected], follow him on Twitter: @noozhawk, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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