TRABUCO CANYON (CNS) - Investigators were working Thursday to unravel what prompted a retired Ventura Police Department sergeant to go on a shooting rampage inside a famed Orange County biker bar, killing three people and injuring six others before being killed in an apparent shootout with responding sheriff's deputies.
The Orange County Sheriff's Department identified the gunman Thursday morning as 59-year-old John Snowling. According to the Ventura Police Department, Snowling retired from that agency as a sergeant in February 2014, ending a career that began in July 1986.
According to Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer, Snowling went to the Cook's Corner bar in the 19100 block of Santiago Canyon Road in Trabuco Canyon Wednesday night in search of his estranged wife, who was known to frequent the establishment. The couple were in the midst of a divorce.
Authorities and witnesses said the gunfire rang out around 7 p.m. Wednesday inside the bar/restaurant while a band known as M Street was performing for the crowd during the establishment's popular weekly $8 spaghetti dinner night.
When the melee ended, four people were pronounced dead at the scene, including Snowling, who was apparently gunned down by responding sheriff's deputies. Six other people were taken to Providence Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, where hospital officials said Wednesday night that two patients were in critical condition and four others were considered "stable."
Snowling's wife, identified in court papers as Marie Snowling, was shot in the jaw and was initially listed in critical condition at Providence Mission, but she was transferred overnight to UCI Medical Center in Orange, according to hospital officials and relatives. Snowling's wife's father told reporters his daughter had been shot in the jaw, adding that John Snowling was upset about his wife filing for divorce late last year.
According to Providence Mission Hospital, a critically injured man who was shot in the chest remained hospitalized Thursday morning and was still in critical condition, but stable.
The other four patients taken to Providence Mission were all men. One of them was released last night, two others were expected to go home Thursday and the fourth, who was shot in an arm, was scheduled to undergo surgery Thursday, according to the hospital.
The names of the three people who died in the shooting have not yet been released. Sheriff's officials were expected to hold a news conference Thursday afternoon to provide more details of the investigation.
Video from the scene Wednesday night clearly showed multiple bodies covered with sheets outside the bar.
OCSD Undersheriff Jeff Hallock told reporters late Wednesday night deputies had recovered at least one weapon believed to have been used in the shooting, but investigators were still gathering evidence.
"We have a number of witnesses that we have to interview and we will be processing the scene throughout the night," Hallock said.
Hallock said there were at least "30 to 40 witnesses" that investigators were slated to interview.
The Ventura Police Department issued a statement Thursday saying the agency was cooperating with Orange County authorities in the investigation.
"Our hearts weigh heavy with the distressing incident at Cook's Corner," VPD Chief Darin Schindler said. "Our deepest condolences are with the families of the victims, the survivors, add the Orange County deputies who swiftly responded to the scene. This incident deeply affects us all."
A man who had been on his way to Cook's Corner told KCAL9 Wednesday night that friends of his were inside the bar when the shooting occurred and they saw the gunman, who was described as an older man with a gray beard. He said his friends were not injured.
A witness to the shooting told KTLA5 at the scene Wednesday night the band was playing when the sound of gunfire rang out inside the bar. The man said he saw "a guy that had a light blue shirt on, he had two guns in his hands."
The witness told the station he heard a barrage of gunfire as the gunman maneuvered inside the bar. The gunman then ran out to the parking lot and retrieved what appeared to be a rifle or shotgun from a silver pickup and he began shooting again, the witness said.
Another witness told reporters he saw the gunman wielding some type of long rifle and engage in a gunfight with sheriff's deputies. A sheriff's department spokesman confirmed Wednesday night that deputies engaged with the gunman within minutes of arriving at the scene shortly after 7 p.m. Although it hadn't been confirmed Snowling was killed by the deputies' gunfire, Hallock said Wednesday night that appeared to be the case.
Various witness reports indicated that one of the people injured in the shooting was a cook at the restaurant, and an unknown number of people barricaded themselves inside the kitchen to avoid the gunman. According to multiple reports, a woman who encountered the gunman outside the bar bagged the man not to shoot her, telling him she was pregnant. The woman said the shooter spared her life, telling her, "Get out of here."
Shortly after the shooting, a woman who had been inside the bar posted a series of photos showing blood smeared on the floor of the business. She wrote that the gunman fired four or six shots toward her, but she was not hit.
Cook's Corner is a well known bar and biker hangout. The building is believed to date back to the late 1800s, although it did not begin operating as a restaurant until the 1920s. The restaurant bills itself as "one of the most famous biker bars in Southern California."
Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statement Thursday lamenting the shooting, while also urging the public to take advantage of "red-flag" laws that can lead to seizure of weapons from people who might be considered a threat to themselves or others.
"California mourns for the victims of last night's horrific shooting at Cook's Corner," Newsom said. "As we continue to learn more details about this act of violence, there are early reports that this horror was related to a domestic dispute. This type of trauma is unfortunately not isolated. Two-thirds of mass shooters in America have a history of domestic violence.
"Victims and survivors in California should know they are never alone -- we have tools and resources to support and protect you. Our state's red flag laws allow victims, family members, coworkers, and others to work with local law enforcement and the courts to safely remove guns from those who may be a potential threat. We must continue to strengthen, defend, and use these laws. If you see red flags, say something -- and in doing so, save lives."
Sen. Dave Min, D-Irvine, issued a statement Wednesday night saying he was "heartbroken" by the shooting in his area.
"Our district is one of the safest areas in the country and yet we too are repeatedly afflicted with the scourge of mass shootings," Min said. "An office park in Orange, a church in Laguna Woods, a bar in Trabuco Canyon.
"There is no place in America that is safe from the scourge of gun violence. There is no community not affected. My heart breaks for the families and loved ones of the victims. We cannot rest until we end gun violence in this country."
Rep. Katie Porter, D-Irvine, posted on social media, "This is heartbreaking news for our Orange County community. I'm thinking of the victims and their loved ones as we await more information from law enforcement."
Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley said it was "disturbing to now learn that the suspect killed his wife or ex-wife during an argument. Another domestic dispute led to another mass shooting. We must do more to prevent senseless acts of gun violence and protect survivors."
Responding to a question Wednesday night about similar events in Trabuco Canyon, Hallock replied, "These types of shootings are not commonplace in Orange County."