Santa Monica gunman had past mental issues, police sources say
A gunman’s rampage that left four victims dead in Santa Monica on Friday was a premeditated act by an emotionally troubled person who armed himself with high-powered weapons and may have had up to 1,300 rounds of ammunition, law enforcement sources said Saturday.
Authorities have not officially named the gunman who was killed by police. But law enforcement sources in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles identified him as John Zawahri, 23.
Several of the sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said Zawahri had struggled with his parents’ bitter divorce. He also had a history of mental issues, the sources said, but they could not be more specific.
Santa Monica police said Saturday that the department had dealt with the gunman in connection with an incident in 2006 but would not provide details because he was a juvenile at the time.
Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks also said officers had previously gone to the Yorkshire Avenue home where the rampage began.
Just before noon Friday, the home was set on fire, and authorities found the gunman’s father, Samir Zawahri, 55, and brother, Chris, 25, dead, sources said.
Seabrooks said the gunman was “connected” with Santa Monica College in 2010 but did not say whether he was a student.
Police said the rampage lasted about 10 minutes, with the gunman cutting a sharp, bloody path through normally quiet streets. It ended when Zawahri, who’d been firing a semiautomatic rifle, was shot on the campus.
“Any time someone puts on a vest of some sort, comes out with a bag full of loaded magazines … has a handgun and has a semiautomatic rifle, carjacks folks, goes to a college, kills more people and has to be killed at the hands of police,” Seabrooks said, “… that’s premeditated.”
A close friend of the family, who asked not to be identified, said that Zawahri struggled with mental health problems. “John had a fascination with guns,” said the friend. “We were all worried about it.”
The friend said Zawahri didn’t have a job and that “everyone is wondering where he got the money for the weapons.”
Details on the gunman and his victims weren’t available Saturday, partly because the shooter’s mother, identified by the sources as Randa Abdou, was said to be out of the country and had not been reached by police.
As investigators fanned out across Santa Monica, surveying multiple crime scenes, a picture of the gunman’s fractured and troubled family emerged.
Zawahri’s parents had been divorced for years, neighbors said. Court records show two divorce filings. One was filed in 1993, by Samir Zawahri. Another, noting domestic violence, was filed by Abdou in 1998.
The family moved into a Santa Monica home in the 2000 block of Yorkshire Avenue about two decades ago, neighbors said. After the couple split up, Abdou eventually settled into an apartment about two miles away with son Chris. John had remained with his father.
Mykel Denis, who lives in Abdou’s apartment complex, described her as a pleasant woman of Lebanese descent who lived with an “angry” son whose voice boomed when he became upset. Denis said he would often hear the man through the walls “yelling, screaming and cursing,” and that often the loud outburst occurred when the man was home alone.
Another neighbor, Beverly Meadow, described Abdou as a slight woman who moved into the second-floor apartment next door about five years ago. Abdou, she said, was on a one-month vacation in Lebanon and due back in Los Angeles sometime next week.
“She’s a lovely woman,” Meadows said. “Petite, sweet, quiet, brunet and classy — with a crazy kid.”
A few miles away, Abdou’s co-workers at the Rose Cafe in Venice — one of two waitressing jobs she holds — struggled Saturday to cope with the shootings.
“All I can think about are Randa’s loving ways,” said fellow waitress Nicole Derseweh, 30, tears in her eyes. “She’s playful and funny, and always singing Top 40 tunes.... I never saw her cry. She never talked about her kids.”
Co-workers said Abdou’s best friend, a fellow waitress, was among several students studying for year-end exams at Santa Monica College when the gunman opened fire on them.
The friend escaped unharmed. But she confided to co-workers that she was planning to seek grief counseling.
According to police, Zawahri, dressed in black fatigues and carrying a long semiautomatic rifle, had walked down the block shortly after setting his father’s home on fire and shot a sedan, wounding the female driver. Then he carjacked a Mazda hatchback driven by Laura Sisk, 41.
Sisk said Zawahri said little other than giving her directions and telling her to keep calm. “You’re going to drive me to Santa Monica College and let me out,” he said.
Near Pico and Cloverfield boulevards, the gunman briefly stepped out of Sisk’s car and fired at a Santa Monica city bus, strafing it front to back, shattering windows and sending passengers diving to the floor for cover. A woman sitting in a back row was grazed in the head by a bullet.
Getting back into the car, he told Sisk, “Go! Go! Go!”
At a parking lot near the college he fired at a red Ford Explorer driven by Carlos Franco, a 68-year-old groundskeeper at the college, who was with his daughter.
Franco died at the scene. His daughter, 26-year-old Marcela, who had signed up to take summer classes at the college, was also shot. She was in critical condition at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center on Saturday and was not expected to survive.
Allowing Sisk to drive away, Zawahri ran on to the sprawling campus. He encountered police and exchanged gunfire with them.
It was outside the school’s library that Zawahri shot a middle-aged student. She died later at a local hospital. Neither college officials nor the police would give her name. She was described as a white student in her 50s.
Zawahri went into the library and fired a fusillade of rounds as students dove for cover and hid in nearby rooms.
Seabrooks, the Santa Monica chief, said Saturday several students hid in an adjacent room, blocking the door and surviving after the gunman shot at them through the wall.
Eventually, Zawahri found himself face to face with city and campus police, who wounded him, Seabrooks said.
After police carried him outside, he died on the sidewalk. He’d entered the campus armed not only with the semiautomatic assault rifle, but with a large bag that contained up to 20 magazines, and a .44-caliber revolver.
Seabrooks said Zawahri had brought up to 1,300 rounds of ammunition with him.
Police are still searching for what may have triggered the rampage. Seabrooks said the gunman would have turned 24 on Saturday.
Times staff writers Scott Glover, Andrew Blankstein, Marisa Gerber, Ruben Vives, Anh Do, Laura J. Nelson, Angel Jennings and Christine Mai-Duc contributed to this report.
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