David Attias’ father, Daniel, testified in court on Tuesday that his son wanted to come home from UCSB in the months preceding the deadly Feb. 23, 2001 collision on Sabado Tarde Road, but that he told the freshman he should stay in Santa Barbara.
Mr. Attias, a television show director, also said that he didn’t fully comprehend his son’s mental illness until he saw him in Santa Barbara County Jail last February.
Attias, who is 20 years old, is charged with four counts of second-degree murder, as well as five other felony counts for the incident, which killed four people and seriously injured a fifth person. His attorneys, Jack Earley and Nancy Haydt, entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, which means the trial will enter an insanity phase if the jury convicts Attias.
Closing arguments for the guilt phase of the trial, which is in its fifth week, are expected to begin by next week.
In court on Tuesday, Mr. Attias said his wife, Diana, did not initially want children but he “very much” wanted to start a family.
He said he worked to balance his “demanding” director’s career with his home life, and tried to only leave Los Angeles for “special” jobs after he became a father.
Attias’ mother had a hard time dealing with their son, whom psychiatrists have testified had signs of mental illness from infancy. Mr. Attias said Mrs. Attias tended to “personalize things that were not personal – they went right into a wound of her own.” He said it nearly drove his wife to leave the family.
“As time went on I found I could not rely on her as an equal partner. I think having a child with special needs, and particularly the kinds of special needs that David has, was very difficult for the kinds of needs my wife had. I think there was a clash there – she’s fragile in certain ways,” he said. “[Diana] loves David, but I think she tended to withdraw.”
Mr. Attias said his attempts to be an involved and loving husband and father were sometimes unsuccessful.
“I love my wife, but it made me frustrated and stressed. I have my own stresses in my own occupation and I didn’t always act admirably,” he said. “Part of the poignancy of our situation was that … everything was extremely easy for [our daughter Rachel]. … It made for an extremely difficult situation to make up rules that would appear as equitable … David really needed extreme structure.”
Earley asked Mr. Attias if he was informed that doctors at UCLA, where the defendant was treated when he was 13, thought that he could develop a major mental illness later in life.
“If they did say it I didn’t hear it,” he said. “We were desperately hoping we would find relief, he would find relief, from the many symptoms … I, for whatever reason, did not put together in my head [that he suffered from] mental illness. I always hoped that everything was evolving and changing and that he could move through it.”
Mr. Attias said he was hesitant about medication and diagnoses when Attias was a child because he was fearful “a paper trail of labels” would follow his son for the rest of his life.
“I was very fearful of it … I was always worried David would stop being seen as who he is … I didn’t want people to see a label,” he said. “My goal was always for him to get better … I now know that he needs medication, and I know that more than ever now.”
“How did mental illness fit into your idea of success for David?” Earley asked.
“I guess it didn’t,” Mr. Attias said.
While Attias was at mental hospitals and developmental schools between the ages 13 and 16 and while at UCSB, he always wanted “to come home.” Mr. Attias said he told his son to stay in school because education was a high priority for the family, and he felt that if Attias “fixed his mental problems” and went to college, he could have a normal life.
“He told me early on that he was unhappy [at UCSB] … I encouraged him to go see a counselor,” he said. “He told me he wanted to leave UCSB and go to Santa Monica City College. I thought – and again, if I knew then what I know now, what I would have done would have been very different. But I thought at the time what he was saying was nonsensical.”
“Did you think he could be successful without completing college?” Earley asked.
“I don’t think I thought that, no,” Mr. Attias said.
He took away his son’s key to their Santa Monica home at the end of winter break, Mr. Attias said, after a huge fight. According to Mr. Attias, he wanted his son to abide by certain rules of a contract – including going back on his medication and seeing a therapist once a week – and until that contract was fulfilled, the house was not open to him.
“Over Christmas break he was going out to clubs and coming home very late and I was concerned. I told him while he was under our roof, I wanted him to come home at 2:30,” he said. “His reaction to that was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It was full-blown, grandiose, bordering on megalomania, on how dare I tell him what to do … it was at this point the bipolar diagnosis became clear to me.”
The then-freshman totaled his car while driving back to school on Jan. 7, 2001, after which the family bought Attias another Saab for $6,000. Mr. Attias said his goal was to get his son back into therapy, and the car was “part of their bargain.”
He also said they bought a Saab as a safety precaution, because it was “heavy.”
“It also seemed necessary for him to have transportation to go downtown for therapy. It’s painful because it turned out to be a horrific, horrific mistake. I can only say what I knew at the time,” he said.
“Did you think he would hurt somebody with a car?” Earley asked.
“No, I didn’t,” Mr. Attias replied. “Until Feb. 23, when I saw him in the county jail, I had no idea of the severity of his mental illness nor of how he perceived the world.”
Christen Tull, a friend of the defendant, also took the stand on Tuesday. She said testimony given by Terrence Chew, Attias’ roommate at Francisco Torres, was inaccurate because it took out of context a conversation she had with Attias. Chew testified that Attias told Tull she should “kill” a boy she was dating.
“David was trying to cheer me up … he was completely joking,” she said.