TRABUCO CANYON, Calif. (AP) — The cover band at the historic Southern California biker bar had just launched into their next song when the gunman walked in and began firing.
Some froze, others ran as the bullets flew inside busy Cook's Corner, which was holding its weekly spaghetti night on Wednesday.
After shooting his estranged wife, the man shot and killed her dinner companion, then began firing at random, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said Thursday. He went outside to retrieve more guns from his car and kept firing, Barnes said, killing a total of three people and wounding six others.
Within minutes, deputies arrived and killed the shooter, Orange County Sheriff’s Sgt. Frank Gonzalez said.
As the shooting began, M Street band keyboardist Mark Johnson hid behind a speaker with his wife, singer Debbie Johnson.
“Once he started shooting, it was very indiscriminate,” Mark Johnson said.
The Orange County District Attorney’s Office identified the gunman as John Snowling, 59, a former police officer. Those killed included a man who approached Snowling in the parking lot after Snowling went outside to get more guns.
Betty Fruichantie told NBC4 Los Angeles that she was with the shooter's wife, Marie Snowling, who fell to the floor. With bullets flying past her face, Fruichantie ran and hid in a restroom with others.
“And when we came out, people were on the floor and people were like over people trying to help them, just holding their wounds,” she said.
Brandon Koslowsky told KTLA-TV that he barricaded himself in the liquor room with a bartender and another employee when the shooting began. As the shooting continued outside the bar, he came out and tried to help people, including a wounded woman who died.
“I don’t know their names. You know, there’s a lot of blood,” he said.
Marie Snowling was shot in the jaw and improved from critical to stable condition, Orange County Supervisor Don Wagner said Thursday afternoon. One of the six wounded people was released from the hospital.
Marie Snowling cited irreconcilable differences in filing for divorce in December 2022 after being married to John Snowling for more than three decades, Ventura County online court records show. The case was scheduled for a mandatory settlement conference in November.
Her father, William Mosby, of Lake Forest, told The Orange County Register, that John Snowling could not “deal with the divorce.”
He had been living in Ohio on a 7-acre property with his dog, according to his divorce lawyer, Tristan teGroen. He said there was "no murmur of of domestic violence or threats or anything like that from the other attorney.”
“I did not see anything on the horizon that would give me an inkling of what happened last night,” teGroen said. “He struck me as a calm, collected, articulate man with a good memory and an animal lover.”
Kenneth H.J. Henjum, Marie Snowling’s attorney, said in an email that her family was in shock and was requesting privacy.
John Snowling had worked for the police department in Ventura, a coastal city north of Los Angeles, from 1986 to 2014. Ventura Police Chief Darin Schindler issued a statement expressing condolences to the victims' families, the survivors and the deputies who responded.
Cook’s Corner has long been a place for motorcyclists to gather for live music, open-mic nights or just a cold beer after a long ride. It calls itself the oldest motorcycle bar in Southern California and it sits at the intersection of two picturesque highways in an area of scrubby hills and bike paths. It attracts everyone from motorcycle riders on choppers to avid cyclists in Lycra and families with young children.
“It’s a Disneyland for bikers,” Kamran Amiri, who has been a Cook’s Corner regular for two decades, said Thursday.
Amiri, who was there Wednesday but left before the shooting, said the bar is “just full of the friendliest people” who go there to chat over a beer, listen to music or show off their motorcycles.
Hours before the shooting, rows of motorcycles and bikes framed the gravel entrance where plaques describe the bar’s history.
“We’ve experienced major earthquakes, forest fires, floods, recessions and other disasters. We’ve gotten through all of them and came out stronger. Ride down and check us out,” the bar says on its website.
M Street, which plays popular songs from the 1960s to today, had performed at Cook's Corner before in the bar's sprawling outdoor area, but this was the band's first time on the stage inside, Mark and Debbie Johnson said.
The band finished up one song, and people who had been dancing sat down, holding egg shakers the band had given out, Debbie Johnson said.
Two people in the crowd were celebrating birthdays, and the band had wished them happy birthday and promised a special song later in the evening, she said.
It never came.
“We launched into our next song and somewhere in the middle of it this man just walks in, doesn’t say a word, and just starts shooting,” she said.
Some bargoers fled and ran up a nearby hill.
Mark Johnson said that once the gunman went outside, he and others shut the doors. About 30 people hunkered down inside. He said he called 911 while watching the shooter go around the outside of the building.
“We opened the back gate to see where he was and he immediately started shooting,” he said.
He and his wife said two of their fellow bandmembers were wounded by gunfire and were expected to survive. The fifth member was not injured, they said.
“I have never been so happy to see dozens of police cars heading my way,” Debbie Johnson said. “We were fish in a very small barrel.”
Taxin reported from Santa Ana, Calif., and Antczak from Los Angeles. Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
This version corrects the spelling of the name of the attorney for John Snowling.
Eugene Garcia, Amy Taxin And John Antczak, The Associated Press