Can a mass shooter demand a good death? The strange case that tested the limits of justice

In 2021, a security guard in Spain stormed into his workplace and shot four people. He was caught, badly injured, and a trial was set – but his victims would never get to see him punished

At 11.09am on 14 December 2021, a man wearing a black baseball cap and a long auburn wig rang the bell at the Securitas offices in the Spanish city of Tarragona. It was a poor disguise, and when he entered the reception area on the first floor, staff quickly recognised Marin Eugen Sabau, a burly 45-year-old security guard who had been on sick leave for the previous six months.

Securitas is one of the world’s biggest security companies, with 345,000 employees worldwide, but this local office was nothing fancy – grey floor tiles, white laminated furniture, corporate advertising on the walls. “We help make your world a safer place,” read one slogan. In the cluttered main office, Luisa Rico, a 58-year-old junior manager with cropped silver hair and green eyes, was printing out documents. She recognised Sabau’s voice but was not alarmed that he had dropped by unexpectedly. He sounded calm as he talked to a colleague in the reception area. She did not know he was carrying a pistol, or that he planned to shoot her.

Over the next few minutes, Sabau’s voice grew louder as an argument broke out. When Rico opened a security door to see what was going on, Sabau was just a few feet from her. He had discarded the wig and was pointing a pistol with a long black silencer into a meeting room. He fired at José Manuel Maestro, the company’s provincial manager, who fell to the floor. Then Sabau spun around to face Rico. In the instant before she slammed the door, he pulled the trigger again. “A puff of smoke rose from my sleeve,” Rico recalled. “The pain was terrible.”

As Rico stared at her arm in disbelief behind the closed door, another junior manager, Juan Hernández, tried to wrestle the gun away from the shooter. Sabau shot him in the leg. He let three other Securitas employees go, waving them away with his pistol. Then he looked for Rico. Bleeding heavily, and still wearing her Covid mask, glasses and cream foulard scarf, she had crawled into a nook beside some stacked boxes of copy paper in the main office. The only other person in the room, a clerk named Carmen Bonilla, hid under her desk and called the police.

A trail of blood gave Rico away. She looked up as Sabau stood over her. “He smiled,” Rico told me. Then he fired again. The bullet struck her upper thigh, cutting through her bladder and hip. “It hurt so badly, I actually wished I would die,” she recalled.

With that, Sabau was done. He packed his guns and wig into a Securitas carrier bag, placed them inside a sports holdall, and left. As he stepped outside into Plaza Prim, the small public square outside the office, the clock on the building above him showed 11.15am.

The shooting spree, in a provincial Mediterranean port city of 135,000 people, known mostly for its Roman ruins, in a country with strict gun laws, was almost unimaginable. “I thought only gringos did this,” said one of many social media commentators, comparing the incident to gun crime in the US. “You just don’t think it is going to happen in this country, and certainly not in a city like Tarragona,” Rico said. As startling as Sabau’s crime was, the events that followed were even more extraordinary. Just a few months later, the survivors of Sabau’s attack would find themselves arguing for his life to be saved, while Sabau himself sought his own death, in an unprecedented case that will be cited in courts and ethics classes for years to come.

* * *

A few minutes after Sabau left the office, Plaza Prim was full of sirens and flashing lights, as ambulances and police cars rushed to the scene. Rico, who was bleeding internally, was taken to the city’s Joan XXIII hospital, where doctors managed to stabilise her. Hernández’s injuries were not life-threatening. Maestro was in a far worse condition, with five bullet wounds in his stomach, hip, neck and shoulder.

Just after the shootings, a passerby, hearing screams from the building, had snapped a picture of Sabau’s licence plate as he drove off in a grey Citroën Xsara. Within minutes, his name and number plate were circulating on police radios, and soon after on local news websites. On WhatsApp, someone found Sabau’s profile picture – a photo of him proudly posing in his Securitas uniform – and stamped “WANTED” on it. It flew from phone to phone, as locals learned of the shooting. Everyone had the same question: what had made Sabau do this?

An answer of sorts landed in Bonilla’s inbox at 12.47pm, as she was being questioned by police. It was a 3,500-word email from Sabau, with the subject line: “Happy holidays, you thieving, racist bastards!!” It was copied to Securitas bosses across Spain, including two of his victims, Maestro and Rico. “I don’t want to kill them,” he wrote. “I’m not crazy. I have it all perfectly planned.”

Sabau had worked for Securitas for more than a decade. As a police officer’s son from the elegant Romanian city of Sibiu, he had been raised to admire order, honesty and slick self-presentation. He avoided alcohol, cigarettes, even coffee. He was a stickler who lived by the rules and expected others to do the same. “Our father taught us that,” his older sister, Eugenia, told me. As a young man Sabau had applied to join the police in Romania, but he was turned down, and in 2003, he emigrated to Spain.

Eugenia, sister of Eugen Sabau, with her husband, Mugurel Ciocan.
Eugenia, sister of Eugen Sabau, with her husband, Mugurel Ciocan. Photograph: Cristobal Castro/The Guardian

At first, he worked in unsteady, poorly paid farm jobs. When he was hired by Securitas in 2009, he was overjoyed. As one of the 200 or so Securitas guards who patrol factories, offices, shops and warehouses in Tarragona province, he would be following in his father’s footsteps, upholding law and order. “For him, it was the greatest company,” Rico said. “He was very meticulous, and got upset with colleagues who weren’t.” Eugenia also spoke of her brother’s pride in the job. Securitas became part of his identity. He even added its name to his personal email address.

The email that reached Bonilla came from this address, and showed how far the relationship had soured. “I’m so stressed that I am no longer a person,” Sabau wrote. The company had mistreated him for the past nine years, he said, and it was time to put a stop to it. “Lessons learned with blood are not quickly forgotten. Securitas will remember me for years.”

Sabau’s relationship with his employers had fallen apart in January 2013, when – after failing to persuade the company that it owed him money – he sued Securitas for allegedly cheating him out of €5,700 in travel and meal allowances, equivalent to half a year’s salary. Sabau won the case, only to lose on appeal. “My hell started then,” he wrote. From that point on, he embarked on a one-man war against the Swedish multinational. He carefully studied a 72-page agreement signed by security companies and trades unions, which laid out his rights in minute detail. Armed with this information, over the next eight years he lodged seven separate complaints alleging abuse of those rights with government labour inspectors, who enforce Spanish work regulations; but they found no grounds to sanction the company. In turn, Securitas issued at least two formal reprimands against Sabau, mostly to do with his allegedly overbearing attitude to clients. (One of these was later struck out after Sabau challenged it.)

For Rico, the once-dependable Sabau became a nightmare. “We could deal with issues like working hours and holidays, but not money,” she told me. That was not within her power. Sabau’s deluge of complaints were pushed up to the company’s regional headquarters in Barcelona. According to Rico, local managers repeatedly told Securitas that they could no longer work with Sabau, but the company did not sack him. Had Securitas done so, it would have been obliged to compensate Sabau with 33 days’ pay for each year worked and admit this was technically an “unjustified dismissal”. “The company worries about its reputation,” Rico said.

Sabau stayed, and tension built. When Sabau’s father died in 2017 while he was on holiday, a Securitas worker said Sabau fought with the company over whether he was owed extra days’ leave under Spanish law for attending the funeral. In 2019 and 2020, according to Sabau’s family, doctors twice signed him off work for stress. “I’ve suffered heart problems, memory loss, vomiting, can’t sleep, feel pain in my chest and have passed out several times at home,” he wrote in his email.

Apart from his job, Sabau had little else in his life. He liked women, but was untrusting, and did not have a partner. He bought two American staffordshire terriers, but had to give them away. “It broke his heart, but he couldn’t care for them properly,” said Eugenia’s husband, Mugurel Ciocan.

Sabau’s only release was the shooting range. In 2012, he joined the Jordi Tarragó shooting club, whose dilapidated buildings and pot-holed car park lie off the road to Tarragona’s giant Repsol chemical plant. At the range, Sabau’s conduct was exemplary; he won prizes and offered advice to fellow members. Ever the rules man, his only quarrel came when he accused rivals of cheating when working out their scores. Police officers practised alongside him. No one found him suspicious. “If we see a Rambo type, they are expelled,” club president Xavier Fau told reporters.

Sabau was no Rambo, but he was dedicated to his work. On 12 May 2021 he chased a shoplifter at Tarragona’s Wala sports store and tore a tendon. He claimed that the Securitas employee sent to relieve him of his duties did not arrive for three hours, and he then had to drive himself to a doctor. “They don’t give a shit about my health,” he said in his email. He was placed on sick leave. At first, he needed crutches to walk, and the injury lingered on through the year. “When I sit down, it feels like I’m being poked with pins,” he wrote. Cooped up in his apartment in the nearby town of Alcover, he mulled over his battle with Securitas. “He got into a loop,” Mugurel told me.

In the summer, Sabau’s landlord gave him notice that he needed the apartment for his ex-wife, and he agreed to move out as soon as he could find somewhere new. The rejections Sabau received as he looked for a new home piled pressure on an overstressed mind. Still, he cleaned the place thoroughly, ready for a handover. Then, on 14 December he left the rented flat before 10.30am, drove to the Securitas office in Tarragona and began shooting.

* * *

That morning, Luisa Rico’s daughter, Jashmina, was working at the medical emergency services’ call centre in Tarragona when she heard about an incident at her mother’s office. The family were terrified. “We didn’t know if he was coming for us too, or where he was,” said Rico’s husband, Jaime Abrio, a retired bricklayer.

Police believe that, after leaving the crime scene, Sabau drove to an out-of-town shopping centre, where he parked and spent 45 minutes finishing his email. Shortly after 1pm, he was spotted driving through Reus, a city five miles inland. Three police officers in an unmarked car stopped him at a roundabout. An officer who knew Sabau from the gun club walked towards his car, with his pistol raised. “Throw away the gun Eugen,” he shouted. Instead, Sabau opened fire, hitting him in the arm. In the ensuing shootout, the police car was struck by three bullets, while Sabau’s car took five rounds before he sped off.

Sabau swung the car on to a farm track 200 metres away, bumped along for a few minutes and pulled up behind a small shed. A neighbour spotted him ducking into bushes. Snipers took up position 150 metres away on the roof of a three-storey farmhouse. Neat rows of almond and olive trees in surrounding fields provided cover as police closed in. By 3pm, they had Sabau surrounded.

The events of the next 90 minutes on that bright winter afternoon remain unclear. After calling his phone and getting no answer, police opted against negotiating. They later said that using a megaphone would have given away their location, endangering them. Sabau later said that he was out of ammunition by that point and was lying in bushes in his bulletproof vest, listening to the birds. Police allege that he opened fire as soon as he saw them.

Whatever the truth, the standoff ended in a fusillade of police bullets at about 4.30pm. According to police, two snipers initially aimed shots at a wall, in an attempt to make Sabau surrender. The police special intervention group then approached on foot, firing at least 36 rounds. “Given the imminent and grave risk to the agents’ own physical wellbeing and the high stress provoked by the situation, the final shots were aimed towards non-vital parts of the aggressor’s body,” according to a police report. (“They fired without warning,” Sabau claimed later. “No one spoke.”)

When officers reached Sabau, he was unconscious, bleeding from at least three gunshot wounds. A helicopter airlifted him to a hospital in Barcelona, 50 miles to the north-east. “He has been neutralised,” provincial police chief Josep María Estela announced to the media. News reports across Spain called Sabau “the Rambo of Tarragona” and “the Securitas gunslinger”. Neighbours told reporters he complained incessantly about Securitas, but was otherwise unremarkable and unthreatening.

It seemed the story was over. Sabau was expected to face trial and receive a long jail sentence – but only if he survived.

* * *

In Barcelona, Sabau was stabilised, sedated and moved early the next day to a second hospital, where doctors were better equipped to deal with such serious injuries. He had lost a lot of blood. A bullet was buried in one of his shoulder blades, and fragments were spread across his shoulder and a leg. He had head and neck fractures, three broken ribs and one of his arms was badly damaged. There was extensive damage to a kidney and to nerves in his spinal cord. A ventilator kept him breathing as he lay in an induced coma.

Three weeks later, Sabau recovered consciousness. He was paralysed, and in intense pain. Doctors feared that the wounds on one of his legs might lead to an infection, further endangering his life, but Sabau refused to have an amputation. They called his sister Eugenia, who also lived in Alcover, pleading with her to try to change her brother’s mind. When she arrived, on a chilly day in early January 2022, she found her brother hooked up to tubes and breathing through a hole in his throat. “He could barely whisper,” she said. Despite her entreaties, Sabau still refused to have his leg amputated.

From then on, two or three times a week, when Covid restrictions permitted, Eugenia and Mugurel made the 75-minute drive to Barcelona to visit Sabau. “I don’t know what came over me,” he told them, when they asked about the shootings. Eugenia took care of him: she shaved his face and cut his hair. Infections came and went. Operations were performed, inserting pins and plates into arms and shoulders. He finally allowed surgeons to remove his leg on 23 February.

During these months, the criminal investigation was getting under way. It was overseen by Sònia Zapater, an experienced magistrate who began work on the day of the crime. In Spain, magistrates like Zapater supervise the investigation, prepare charges and ready the case for trial. At witness hearings, Securitas lawyers appeared intent on protecting the company from any accusations of negligence. “At times, it seemed as if [Securitas] lawyers were actually prosecuting the employees,” Rico’s outraged lawyer, Rubén Viñuales, told me. Rico said that the lawyers focused on whether she had pressed the panic button, as if she had not done enough to save herself. “I hadn’t pressed it, because you have to wait for a call-back. It was better to call police,” she said.

Luisa Rico with her husband, Jaime Abrio, pointing to the scar on her arm where she was shot.
Luisa Rico with her husband, Jaime Abrio, pointing to the scar on her arm where she was shot. Photograph: Cristobal Castro/The Guardian

I sent Securitas a detailed list of questions concerning the criticisms of the company by both Sabau and his victims. In response, I received a short statement that addressed few of them. Securitas praised “the courage of our wounded colleagues”, thanked the healthcare workers who treated them, and claimed that it last received a complaint from Sabau “of the kind that happen occasionally in every work context” in 2017. However, his relatives showed me four complaints sent from his email between April and May 2021. Rico was astounded to hear Securitas had claimed otherwise. She told me that such emails were routinely passed on to senior managers outside Tarragona.

At the beginning of March, frustrated with their first lawyers, whom she found inefficient, Eugenia hired a brother-and-sister team of criminal defence attorneys in Reus. Gerard and Anna Amigó had almost five decades of legal experience between them, but this case was unlike any they had taken before. There was no doubting Sabau’s guilt. CCTV footage from the Securitas office showed him waving a gun, clumsily dropping a silencer, pulling the trigger, jumping over the counter and standing over Luisa Rico to shoot her. But what happened next was murkier.

The Amigós felt that the police’s version of events at the farm did not add up. Why hadn’t they tried to negotiate, or to wait out a man who was surrounded? And while a ballistics report on the shootout at the roundabout, with precise details of shell casings, trajectories and impacts, was presented to Zapater, nothing of the kind was ever produced for the shootout in the field. Sabau’s family claimed that they had seen medical reports showing that he had been shot nine times, not three. Sabau’s protective vest, presumably showing impacts, was missing. “One officer even said they didn’t know who gave the order to fire,” Gerard said. He could not establish how many police bullets had hit Sabau. Despite these unanswered questions, in April 2022, the special intervention officers were decorated for bravery by their superiors. (The Catalan police declined to comment for this article.)

That same month, not long after his 46th birthday, Sabau was transferred to the prison wing of a hospital in Terrassa, just north of Barcelona. The medical crises continued. In early June, Eugenia’s phone rang with urgent news. Sabau was in a coma and close to death. Two weeks later, he regained consciousness. Two days after that, the complications started again and a repeat tracheostomy was performed. “For a week or two he couldn’t talk, or we couldn’t understand,” Mugurel recalled. Eugenia lay awake at night, trying to work out what her brother had been trying to tell her.

Sabau’s only encounter with criminal investigators was a brief video conference on 11 July. “The witness says he is a paraplegic, that they have amputated his leg, he has 45 stitches in his hand, cannot move his left arm, has had screws inserted and cannot feel his chest,” the official record stated. Drugs helped, but the pain was constant. Even touching his forearm or cutting his fingernails provoked jolts of pain. “I can’t put up with it much longer,” he told Eugenia.

* * *

In 1968, a 25-year-old Spanish sailor called Ramón Sampedro dived headfirst off high rocks into water that was too shallow. The accident left him unable to move his limbs, and he spent the rest of his life campaigning for a right to die. Sampedro was relentless, good-natured and a skilful writer. His account of his life after the accident, Letters from Hell, became a bestseller and later inspired the Oscar-winning film The Sea Inside.

On 12 January 1998, when Sampedro sipped some potassium cyanide prepared by his friend Ramona Maneiro, he filmed himself and repeated his call for a euthanasia law. “When I drink this, I will have renounced the most humiliating of slaveries: being a live head stuck to a dead body,” he said before taking the poison. Only years later did Maneiro admit to her role in her friend’s death, when the statute of limitations meant she could no longer be prosecuted. “I did it for love,” she said.

Ramón Sampedro in 1993.
Ramón Sampedro in 1993. Photograph: Lavandeira Jr/AP

Discreet, unsanctioned euthanasia, understood as “mercy killing”, has always existed, the Belgian philosopher Willem Lemmens told me, but it often placed doctors who performed it in legal jeopardy. In 2002, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to implement a national euthanasia law. In June 2021, Spain became the fourth country to follow suit, after Belgium, Luxembourg and Canada. According to polls at the time, 87% of Spaniards supported the new law. (New Zealand’s law came into full effect later in 2021, and euthanasia or assisted suicide laws exist for most Australian states. In Germany and Colombia, courts have declared some forms of euthanasia legal according to interpretations of their national constitutions. Switzerland has allowed assisted suicide, where a patient is given the means to end their own life, since 1942. Some US states also allow this for terminally ill people.)

The new euthanasia laws “don’t so much give rights to the patients, as to the doctors who perform euthanasia”, Lemmens said. The process is subject to strict oversight, but places great power in medical hands. “The euthanasia right is really the right that doctors have to perform it without fear of prosecution,” agrees the American bioethicist Scott Kim. “It’s legally justified as an exception to usual medical practice, in the sense that doctors have an obligation to relieve suffering, but also to prolong life. The Dutch view is that when [those duties] conflict, you can’t blame a doctor if they choose one or the other.”

Spain’s euthanasia law is so recent that challenges are still going through the constitutional court. In some countries, euthanasia laws cover release from incurable suffering, including psychological pain. Spain is among the most liberal regimes, allowing doctors to end life in order to relieve non-terminal suffering. When the far-right Vox party lodged a challenge on 16 June 2021, party leader Santiago Abascal described the law as “a victory for the cult of death”. More moderate complaints being considered by the court hold that the law is poorly written and “open to abuse”.

Even critics of the new law had not imagined that a case like that of Sabau would be among the first to provoke public concern about its use. On 20 June 2022, Spain’s biggest radio station broke the news that Sabau had requested euthanasia. As in all such cases, he had to make two written requests, 15 days apart, and await the decision of doctors on whether his condition fitted the law’s concept of “unbearable suffering … that cannot be acceptably relieved”. His wish was granted, and a date set for 28 July.

There was, however, an obvious problem. Sabau had shot four people, but no trial had been held. The criminal investigation had been so slow that formal charges had not even been brought. Sabau’s victims, all of whom had survived, were outraged. They felt that if Sabau died before he was put on trial, justice could not be done. “Their suffering and dignity must be taken into account,” argued José Antonio Bitos, the lawyer for the injured police officer.

In this unprecedented clash, the right of a person experiencing unbearable and irremediable pain to end their own life was pitted against the right of victims to see their attacker face justice. Two decades of legal euthanasia had never generated anything like it. Lemmens told me that in many places euthanasia laws had gone so far beyond the limited way in which they first proposed – essentially as a means of providing a “good death” to terminally ill people – that he was not surprised by the Sabau case, or the outrage it provoked. By avoiding trial, Sabau was, in effect, permitted to opt out of our “moral community”, he said. “The idea that someone can choose to step outside that is very threatening.”

It fell to Zapater to weigh the conflicting demands of Sabau and his victims. In her view, the answer was, from a legal perspective, straightforward. The law defined euthanasia as a medical issue, which meant that she had no legal grounds to override the decision of Sabau and his doctors. In her written response, Zapater recognised that prioritising Sabau’s decision to end his life would inflict “emotional damage” on victims and slow the financial compensation process. (As there would be no trial, the victims would have to start a separate civil process to claim compensation.) Even so, she declared, “In the conflict of rights, those conferred by the euthanasia law clearly win.”

Yet on 20 July, in response to complaints from Rico and other victims, a judge in Tarragona suspended the euthanasia procedure. Rico told me that she wanted to stare into Sabau’s face in court, see him publicly declared guilty and sentenced to punishment. She did not mind if he was euthanased after that, but needed recognition that what Sabau had done to her was wicked and deserved public scorn. “We don’t want to prevent it. We just want a trial first,” Bitos agreed.

Rather than defending Sabau, as they had initially expected to do, the Amigó siblings found themselves demanding his death. “After 25 years, I thought I’d seen it all,” Anna told me as we drove back to Reus in her Mini from Terrassa. “This is one of those days when you realise you haven’t.” She had just listened to Sabau serenely explain why he wanted to die.

Lawyers Anna and Gerard Amigó from Reus, Spain
Anna and Gerard Amigó. Photograph: Courtesy of Gerard and Anna Amigó

In mid-July, Gerard Amigó introduced me to Eugenia and Mugurel. They were Sabau’s only support. Eugenia, with her dark hair dyed blonde and an embroidered summer blouse, was tearful. Mugurel, a muscular man with a dense black beard, who is a varnisher and painter by trade, did much of the talking. They were a team, wearing matching wooden crosses on leather strings and occasionally completing each other’s sentences. They were sorry for Sabau’s violence, relieved he had not killed anyone, and angry at Securitas. Above all, Eugenia wanted her brother freed from pain.

In early August, an appeal court in Tarragona overturned the suspension of the euthanasia procedure. The panel of three judges supported Zapater’s view that “the right to human dignity [of someone in unbearable pain] … outweighs the right to judicial care” of victims. Bitos took the challenge to the constitutional tribunal in Madrid, which threw it out on 12 August. It seemed Sabau’s wish would be granted.

All this came as Catalonia marked the fifth anniversary of terror attacks in which Islamist radicals ran down pedestrians with a van and stabbed people to death on Barcelona’s Ramblas boulevard and at the Cambrils beach near Tarragona, killing 17 people. In that case, police shot dead six terrorists, some of whom were wearing fake suicide vests (“I’m not stupid like them,” Sabau had said in his email. “If I do something crazy. I’ll do it properly.”) Reflecting on the implications of the Sabau case in the newspaper Ideal, Claudio Hernández Cueto, a medical law expert, wrote: “Imagine the reaction if one of the Ramblas attackers had been severely wounded and allowed euthanasia.” Would the courts, he wondered, have delivered on their dream of martyrdom? Legally, the answer now seemed to be yes.

* * *

In mid-August, as the day of his death approached, Sabau agreed to speak to me on the record. Prison authorities and Zapater intervened, restricting visits to family only and banning recording devices.

A week before he was due to die, Gerard Amigó asked Zapater to release Sabau on bail. In practice, this meant wheeling his bed down a corridor into a ward without guards, where Eugenia could accompany him. Zapater refused on the improbable grounds that someone might help him escape. Besides, Zapater added, Sabau had not shown public remorse or asked forgiveness of his victims, and seemed unwilling to accept he had done anything wrong. (Eugenia believed he was fully repentant, even if he had not said so in public. “Nor has anyone apologised for the things that happened to him,” she added.)

Mugurel and Eugenia holding a picture of Eugen Sabau
Mugurel and Eugenia with a picture of Eugen. Photograph: Cristobal Castro/The Guardian

Three days before Sabau died, prison authorities relaxed family visiting rules so that either Eugenia or Mugurel could be there day and night. The one who was not with him slept in their Toyota Auris hatchback in the car park. They felt obliged to pretend that nothing tragic was happening. There were tears, but also laughter as Sabau insisted his bad luck had finally turned, that it was a privilege to be able to die and stop suffering. “He didn’t want to show sadness, for our sake,” Mugurel said.

On 22 August, with Sabau set to die the following day, Anna Amigó and I drove to Terrassa. I was not allowed into the two-storey prison wing, but Anna scribbled down Sabau’s words on a legal pad and he signed it. It was the closest thing to a final testament. Sabau spoke for a long time, Amigó said. He repeated his claim that the police had lied about the shootout by the farm. He said he felt most regret about shooting Hernández, the man who tackled him. He cried only once, when asked about dying. “What future do I have? I can’t describe the pain,” he said.

Otherwise, Sabau was remarkably upbeat, insisting death was a welcome release. He had recently learned that he could donate his organs. As macabre as it sounds, organ donations from those dying from euthanasia are ideal, since the task of prepping patients and delivering organs in good, fresh condition is made easier. By dying, he would be saving lives. That felt virtuous. “I’m a good man,” Sabau told Amigó. “I’m ready. I’m very happy.”

* * *

On the morning of 23 August, a clutch of journalists, myself included, gathered at the 12-storey concrete hospital in the rolling countryside outside Terrassa. By then, the case had become international news. As I waited in the hospital cafeteria, I listened to the lawyers from both sides being interviewed on the radio, as news stations covered the final stage of this long-running drama. During one interview, Gerard Amigó floated the idea of suing police for shooting Sabau. I called Bitos. “If that is what they want, they should stop him from dying right now,” he snorted. The case would be shelved after Sabau’s death, he explained. There was no other suspect to investigate. It seemed that the questions around the police’s handling of the incident would be shelved, too.

Eugenia and Mugurel spent the morning with Sabau as hospital staff bustled around. Again, he insisted on maintaining a happy, even jokey, disposition. “Come on, let’s go!” Sabau urged the doctors. They tried to match his mood, but Mugurel’s account suggested there was a surreal, forced edge to it all. At 2.30pm, doctors told Eugenia and Mugurel that it was time. They said goodbye, held back tears and watched as the sedative was delivered. A holdup in the complex set of medical procedures necessary when euthanasia is combined with organ donation meant it wasn’t until four hours later that Mugurel returned to watch, alongside doctors, nurses and police in medical gowns, as the lethal drug was applied. Later that evening, Anna Amigó called me to say Sabau had died at 6.30pm. Ambulances stood nearby, waiting to transport some of Sabau’s organs to operating theatres with prepped recipients in other hospitals. Eugenia and Mugurel waited into the night as his body was removed by an undertaker, smartened up for an open casket ceremony and then taken to the crematorium to be incinerated two days later. At 11pm, a doctor phoned to tell them the transplants had been a success. “They said he had saved five lives, and there would be more, that we could feel proud,” Eugenia said.

When I visited Eugenia and Mugurel in Alcover three weeks later, they were struggling to make sense of it all. “We were concentrating so hard on the fight to end his pain that we hadn’t thought what it would be like. In a way, it was a victory, but it’s also the loss of a loved one,” Mugurel said. We sat in the living room of their bright, tidy apartment in Alcover and watched a video Sabau had left behind. Eugenia served sponge cake and juice as her brother’s face appeared on the screen. He sat at a table with his short dark hair slicked neatly to one side, wearing a grey Securitas zip-up fleece and a fluorescent orange vest with a badge saying “Security Guard”. Over 18 minutes, he delivered the now-familiar narrative of persecution, larded with paranoia. Eugenia sighed. “For big companies, workers are just numbers,” she said. “Someone should have listened. There were many cries for help.”

Eugenia holding a pendant filled with her brother Eugen Sabau’s ashes
Eugenia holding a pendant filled with her brother’s ashes. Photograph: Cristobal Castro/The Guardian

She and her husband did not condone her brother’s violence, but remembered a man “with a huge heart”. His ashes sat in a brushed metal urn on their bookshelf. They had bought hollow necklace pendants to fill with ash. “We don’t want to whitewash his reputation,” Mugurel said. “Everybody knows the facts.” They just wanted people to know Sabau was not always like this, that something had happened to him.

A few days earlier, I had visited Luisa Rico at a Mediterranean beach campsite south of Tarragona, where she was trying to recover from injury and trauma. After the initial operations to stem internal bleeding, stitch up her bladder and fix hip bones, Rico still walked with a crutch and was awaiting further surgery to pin her hips into place. Her boss, Maestro, had suffered a stroke and now has serious heart and kidney problems, while also struggling with acute anxiety. The other two victims were recovering from lesser wounds. Bitos was not sure the police officer would ever return to active duty.

Before the attack, Rico had been fearless, said her husband, Jaime. Now her self-confidence was shattered. Small things would trigger her: the sound of cars passing by, people shouting in the street, the sight of her scars, or just someone coming up close behind her. She constantly replays the moment when Sabau stood over her with his gun. “I thought I wasn’t going to escape, that he would kill me. I couldn’t do anything at all,” she said.

There are bad days and less bad days. The day Sabau died was one of the worst. “We all know that when you break the law, there is reaction and punishment. All we wanted was justice, to see him declared guilty,” she said. “You try to do everything right in life, then someone suddenly decides to destroy your life. He has stopped suffering, but we are still suffering.” She still sees his face in the shadows, she told me, her eyes filling with tears. His death had not changed that. “It feels like he’s got off completely free.”

• This article was amended on 3 February 2023. An earlier version said that Sabau claimed Securitas did not give him time off for his father’s funeral. To clarify, according to a Securitas worker Sabau was already on holiday, but fought with the company over extra days’ leave he believed he was owed under Spanish law.

• Follow the Long Read on Twitter at @gdnlongread, listen to our podcasts here and sign up to the long read weekly email here.


Giles Tremlett

The GuardianTramp

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