It was 4:44 a.m on June 22, 2018 in Malibu Creek State Park when 35-year-old Tristan Beaudette was hit by a fatal rifle-shot through the side of his tent. Beaudette was camping with his two and four-year-old daughters who slept by his side, exhausted from a day of outdoor adventuring. He had taken them away so his wife, Erica Wu, could focus on her upcoming medical board exams.
The random horror of Beaudette’s murder startled the Malibu community. Fear and paranoia took hold among the area’s residents. Soon there emerged several historic reports of gunshots narrowly missing campers in the park. Cars, too, had been fired upon on nearby Las Virgenes Road. Many locals stopped hiking and driving there at night. Press coverage amped up, the story even made it into the Hollywood Reporter. The disappearance of Mitrice Richardson in 2009 resurfaced, as did the more recent story of 20-year-old Elaine Park, who vanished from her car along the PCH, leaving all her possessions behind.
Moreover, a month before Beaudette’s murder, a mutilated body was discovered nearby. In July, a second body was found. Both of the nearby slayings were later linked to gang activity and deemed unrelated to Beaudette’s murder, but that news came too late to comfort the area’s residents.
People needed answers and began to question the Sheriff Department’s handling of events: How could they have missed so many warning signs?
With a sheriff’s election looming, solving this Malibu mystery became of paramount importance to then LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell.
In October 2018, after a series of break-ins in the area, police arrested Anthony Rauda, a tormented looking 43-year-old man they discovered in the hills above the park. Rauda was dressed in tactical gear and carrying a rifle. A loner, he’d been living off-grid for some time and breaking into nearby stores for food. The initial charge against him was a parole violation from a previous burglary charge.
In January 2019, Rauda was charged with Beaudette’s murder, along with ten other shootings, and five commercial burglaries. In the intervening months, Beaudette’s wife brought a lawsuit against LA County, alleging that numerous agencies failed to warn the public about the series of mysterious shootings in and around the park.
Rauda entered a not guilty plea. While he looked the part upon arrest — disheveled, volatile, and vacant — was this allegedly disturbed man really responsible for some or all of these traceless crimes? Or was he just a good fit for a Sheriff’s Department who desperately needed to produce results? One wonders what exact narrative the DA will put forward to tie Rauda to all these crimes.
Today, September 4th 2019, as the room prepares for Rauda’s pre-trial setting at Van Nuys Courthouse West, it becomes apparent that Rauda’s very image gives the prosecution an early and distinct advantage.
“We need someone to find out if he’s wearing the spit mask and who can put it on him,” a harried bailiff mutters. The mask — mesh and covering the whole head, almost like a beekeeper’s hat— is reserved for the most volatile of defendants, those whom a judge deems likely to disrupt proceedings by spitting at others in court. Simply put, Rauda presents as a villain.
“They can’t transport him on the regular bus as he has to be restrained to a chair, so it’s causing delays,” explains the bailiff again for the attorneys present. Soon, another hurdle emerges: “We also need someone to find out if they’re actually placing him in front of the public.”
And that is where we begin to see the problem with the image of Rauda that is being created. Law enforcement officials — reeling from months of criticism for their failures to make the public aware of multiple incidents of violence in the Malibu area — have presented the public with an image of Rauda as an uncontrollable psychopath who presents a risk to public safety. It is in that context that the bailiff’s words land: Did someone say “spit mask?” Where is the defendant? Even jaded court-regulars seemed agitated.
Judge Shellie Samuels, sharp-witted and straightforward, seemingly knows her task today is to temper these theatrical trappings. She declines a media request to allow cameras to record the proceedings. There is implicit logic here. Images will just exacerbate the notion of Rauda as a dehumanized movie trope — guilty and beyond the control of rational people. She’s fighting back, but the image of Rauda in a spit mask at his arraignment is already out in the public eye.
Confidently, Cynthia Barnes, the Deputy District Attorney assigned to the Rauda case, emerges from the corridor and asks, “Are we ready? I’m ready.”
The Defense then asks to approach the bench. The attorneys converge in front of the dais, and there’s a quick debate about the spit mask Rauda has worn previously. Barnes seems somewhat reluctant to comply at first, but the parties eventually agree he can take it off.
The clinking of the bailiff’s keys and clanging of a steel door finally alert us to Rauda’s arrival in Department 112. Rather than taking the traditional seat beside his defense attorney, Rauda remains out of sight, lurking behind the steel door and the imposing bailiff, deliberately blocked from public view. The moment is eerie: even in his absence — particularly because of his absence — Rauda’s aura chills the room.
Keeping a defendant shielded from view is a rare occurrence but has clear intent. It asks us to consider the case free from Rauda’s fear-inducing accessories of the spit mask and restraint chair.
The Deputy Public Defender for Rauda’s case, Harry J. McKee, then makes a further bold move to seize back territory in this case. He asks to postpone the next hearing until January. Both Samuels and Barnes are irked. Samuels states that while she respects the privacy of the Defense’s case, she needs “three non-secret reasons why you need to postpone.” McKee says that they need more time to review a significant amount of data concerning firearms. Barnes objects and a debate ensues. It becomes evident that the Defense has questions and caveats that could complicate the DA’s seemingly straightforward prosecution of Rauda.
Judge Samuels knows that a decision to delay this high-profile case will feed the community’s anxiety and desire for answers. But Samuels seems both sympathetic to McKee’s arguments and intent on going the extra mile to preserve Rauda’s humanity and rights as this case proceeds.
Then, a further complication emerges. Rauda will not waive his right to a speedy trial. Defense attorneys are usually successful in getting their clients to waive this right, earning their legal team the time to build the most compelling case possible. But Rauda doesn’t want his team to have this extra time. The Judge leans back, plagued by the fact that, “We have a defendant who doesn’t understand where his best interests lie.” Samuels won’t let this trial devolve into the mere sentencing of a villain.
She overrules the prosecutor’s and the defendant’s objections and permits the delay, warning Rauda’s counsel, “This is taking a very long time, and at some point, it’s going to be hard to justify.” A status conference is then set for January and a preliminary hearing for March 2020.
The Judge has pushed back against the narrative that Rauda is a clear-cut maniac and will allow the Defense space to separate fear from reality. The still-unseen Rauda is taken away.
With that, the courtroom clears, and the regular players shift back to routine once again. The clerk shuffles papers making towards the next case and then, matter-of-factly, Judge Samuels returns, in plain clothes, to cross some vacation time off the paper court calendar hanging on the wall.