The families of former UCSB students, engineering majors Weihan “David” Wang and Cheng “James” Hong and computer science major George Chen, jointly filed a wrongful death lawsuit on Monday against Santa Barbara County, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department (SBCSD) and Capri Apartments over the deaths of their sons during last year’s May 23 Isla Vista mass murder.
Wang and Hong were roommates of 22-year-old Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) student Elliot Rodger, who murdered the pair as well as their visiting friend, Chen, at their residence at #7 Capri Apartments on Seville Road on May 23 before fatally shooting three other UCSB students and injuring 14 others.
Representing the families are Los Angeles-based wrongful death law firms Becker Law Group and McNicholas & McNicholas, seeking to prove the legal liability of Capri Apartments and SBCSD in the deaths of Wang, Hong and Chen. The civil suit contends the defendants neglected signs of Rodger’s threat potential, which could have prevented the tragedy had they been better addressed.
The families are pursuing compensation from the county for emotional, physical and psychological damages incurred by the loss of their sons in the massacre, as well as attorney’s fees for the costs of lawsuit.
A joint statement written by Becker Law Group and McNicholas & McNicholas stated the plaintiffs are citing SBCSD for negligence before and during an April 30 welfare check on Rodger, and Capri Apartments for carelessness when investigating and assigning roommates.
“The lawsuit alleges that the SBCSD increased the danger to the decedents who were in a place of safety when a welfare check was performed on April 30, 2014,” the press release stated. “The lawsuit also alleges that Capri Apartments failed to perform a proper background check; conduct a reasonable investigation of Rodger before assigning him roommates; properly monitor its roommate pairings; and warn Rodger’s roommates of his unstable and violent propensities.”
Chen’s mother Kelly Wang, who attended Tuesday’s lawsuit press conference in Los Angeles on behalf of the three victims’ families, said it has been difficult for the victims’ parents to accept that crimes committed by Rodger may have been prevented had the Sheriff’s Department conducted a more thorough search during the welfare check.
“We were deeply saddened when we learned that in several earlier incidents, the police officers had a chance to investigate the killer, and would have stopped the rampage,” Wang said. “We were truly devastated when we learned that the killer made a narrow escape from the welfare check just less than a month before the massacre.”
Becker Law Group Owner Todd Becker said Capri Apartments should have been responsible for conducting more thorough research on Rodger in order to realize that he was “not a suitable roommate for anyone,” as proved by numerous conflicts he had with all of his past roommates which required him to constantly move and switch roommates.
“As student housing, Capri had a duty to investigate Mr. Rodger and determine if he was suitable to be a roommate, of not only our boys but all the other young men that he was roommates with before,” Becker said. “He had seven prior roommates before our kids were his roommates, and he had conflicts with each and every one of them.”
According to Becker, Capri apartments only investigated the financial capabilities of Rodger to pay rent instead of conducting a thorough background check that would have revealed his inclinations toward anger and violence.
“With one simple click on the internet … they could have easily found out that this information was available, [that] Rodger was not a suitable roommate,” Becker said. “They only investigated that was Rodger able to pay. Well, his father’s in Hollywood, clearly he’s able to pay. But they didn’t investigate the security issues and his racist and misogynistic tendencies, clearly seen online and in his rantings and ravings and interactions with police, and interactions with all his roommates.”
Becker said Rodger had several conflicts with past roommates, the first of which occurred August 2011 and continued with a new roommates up to the massacre. According to Becker, Capri apartments made no effort to notify Rodger’s roommates of his past switches despite knowing of Rodger’s prior roommate issues.
“Despite the defendant’s knowledge of Rodger’s bizarre and violent behavior, they … withheld their knowledge of Rodger’s sadistic behavior,” Becker said.
According to Becker, it was difficult for Wang, Hong and Chen to protect themselves in the assigned living situation, and generally there should be a “higher standard of investigation to protect these individuals.”
“It’s not a typical situation where you have somebody across the hall from you in another apartment where you can lock the door, and you can be away from them,” Becker said. “You’re locked inside with this person. That standard wasn’t done and because of that, these three innocent boys and other innocent victims in Santa Barbara were killed.”
Partner of McNicholas & McNicholas Patrick McNicholas said the lawsuit claims that actions taken by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s department prior to and during the welfare check also put Wang, Hong and Chen in danger.
“The second claim is a federal constitutional claim and the theory against the sheriff’s department in this case actually increased the danger to the roommates and their guest, because they were in a position of safety, they were outside of the apartment, they were at school while the welfare check was going on,” McNicholas said.
According to McNicholas, the easily accessible “knowable information” that the officers failed to check include videos online, evidence of weaponry purchases and a concerned phone call to the Sheriff’s Office from Rodger’s mother. McNicholas said these items should have prompted the officers to do more than question Rodger at the welfare check.
“With the social media that had been uploaded, with the fact that Elliot Rodger had purchased weapons and ammunition, with the fact that you had a mom who called because she was so concerned about the mental, emotional and psychological state of her son,” McNicholas said. “A welfare check was initiated, and a cache of weapons and ammunition was probably 15 to 20 feet away from the sheriffs who came to the door and they never got through the door.”
Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Kelly Hoover declined to comment but issued a statement on the matter.
“The Sheriff’s Office cannot comment on a matter of pending litigation, and anything we might say in response would be insufficient when measured against the grief suffered by the families of those killed so tragically on May 23, 2014,” Hoover said in a statement. “Nevertheless, we continue to keep them in our thoughts and prayers, and to extend our deepest sympathies to them.”
According to Wang, there should be new law enforcement requirements and standards set in place to ensure welfare checks include investigations into weapon possession as well as online and social media searches.
“We believe the procedures in the current police system are outdated and should be repaired to protect innocent lives in today’s world,” Wang said. “For example, a welfare check system must be complete and thorough. It should have a weapons check and internet profile search as a mandatory step.”
Wang said that, as a mother, she hopes the Sheriff’s Department takes more care to prevent future incidents like that May 23 massacre to happen again, though she was unable to protect her own son.
“I speak to you with a mother’s heart,” Wang said. “I’m fully supported by the other two mothers of the victims. We love our children with all our hearts. We will love other children with all our mind. We wish we could rely on ourselves to save our sons. We weren’t given the chance, but now we do everything we can to save other children before it’s too late. And that is our way of remembering our sons.”