Wounded Santa Monica shooting victim feared gunman would kill her

Debra Fine, at her Westwood home, shows where she was wounded in shoulder.
Debra Fine, at her Westwood home, shows where she was wounded in shoulder.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

It was a “perfect storm” of coincidences that led Debra Fine into a quiet neighborhood in Santa Monica last week at the exact moment a gunman set off on a chaotic rampage.

A former Disney executive who had quit her job to spend more time with her 15-year-old twins, Fine was headed to record an audition to submit to the Voice. Singing, she said, is her passion.

With President Obama in town, and sections of Sepulveda Boulevard blocked off, Fine headed along the side streets off Pico Boulevard.


That’s where she encountered 23-year-old John Zawahri.

Zawahri, Fine would later learn, had just killed his brother and father, setting their house on fire. As the day went on, he would gun down three others at Santa Monica College before being shot to death by police at the school library.

In all, police said, Zawahri fired 100 rounds during the afternoon of violence.

But initially, all Fine saw was what appeared to be a SWAT officer with his rifle aimed squarely at the driver of the car in front of her.

“He was being absolutely threatening and militant,” Fine said of the gunman.

“But when he looked at me, that’s when I realized everything was wrong. I’ve never seen anybody so intent, but so absent.”

According to Fine and the driver in the car ahead of her during the encounter, Laura Sisk, Zawahri stood in the street and ordered Sisk to pull to the side of the road.

Fine said she was so outraged, she accelerated and drove her car between Zawahri and Sisk’s vehicle.

“What are you doing!” she screamed at the gunman.

Zawahri turned the rifle toward her and pulled the trigger.

Fine estimates Zawahri fired about eight shots. She was hit twice in the left shoulder, three times in the right shoulder and once in the right ear. She said she still has bullet fragments lodged in her chest.

Bleeding and covered in broken glass, Fine slumped over in her car, played dead and called her husband.

She told him she’d been shot.

“It was a moment by moment, do what I had to do,” she recalled. “The only time I thought I was going to die was when I was laying in the passenger side and I realized he was still going across my car.

“My fear was that he was going to come back and finish it off.”

Instead, Zawahri forced Sisk to drive him to Santa Monica College, where he shot and killed a campus groundskeeper and that man’s daughter. He also shot a woman outside the school library.

Fine said the shooting has left her motivated to make a difference. She said she and her husband are starting the Fine Line foundation, a fund that will raise money to advocate for gun safety legislation.

Police are investigating how Zawahri procured the AR-15 he used in the assault.


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