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Santa Monica shooting suspect, possible motive identified, officials say

The gunman accused of killing four people in a Santa Monica shooting rampage Friday was apparently angry over his parents’ divorce and had some mental health issues in the past, a law enforcement source told The Times.

The suspect was identified by five law enforcement sources in Washington and Los Angeles as John Zawahri, in his 20s.

Other sources with knowledge of the investigation said detectives believe the shooting was sparked by a family dispute of some kind but emphasized that the investigation was still in its early stages.

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The suspect’s past mental health issues occurred when he was juvenile, the law enforcement source said, but no further details were offered.

The sources all spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case was ongoing.

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These sources said the alleged gunman’s first victims were his father and brother, whose bodies were found in a burning home. 

One thing the investigators were trying to figure out is why the suspect wanted to be driven to Santa Monica College, where he was ultimately killed by police.

Police have stressed that the rampage was not a “school shooting” and that the violence occurred in many places and happened to end on the campus.

But a woman who was carjacked by the alleged gunman said he specifically asked to be taken to the college.

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“You’re going to drive me to Santa Monica College and let me out,” Laura Sisk, 41, of Culver City recalled the suspect saying in an interview with The Times.

As of Saturday morning, law enforcement sources said they did not believe the college was the target. 

Police were expected to hold a news conference at 1 p.m. Saturday.

The first signs of trouble came about 11:50 a.m. Friday, when gunshots rang out in the vicinity of Kansas and Yorkshire avenues, in a quiet neighborhood near the 10 Freeway.

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Jerry Cunningham-Rathner had just watched her son walk out the front door of her home a few minutes earlier when she heard the shots. She rushed outside, fearing he had been hit.

Instead, looking across the street, she saw a house engulfed in flames. A man standing in front of the house was dressed all in black, with an ammunition belt around his waist and a large rifle in his hands, she said.

“He looked like a SWAT officer,” she said.

Firefighters later found the bodies of two men inside the house. Police sources said the men were Samir Zawahri, 55, the owner of the house and the father of the alleged gunman, and one of his adult sons.

Cunningham-Rathner looked on in horror as two cars approached. She said the man pointed his weapon at the first, a Mazda hatchback, and yelled at the driver to stop. Cunningham-Rathner said he motioned for the woman driving the second car to keep moving. When she hesitated, the man opened fire on her silver Infiniti, wounding the driver slightly.

Sisk, the driver in the first car, froze, she said. She knew President Obama was in town for an event a few miles away and thought momentarily the man might be a Secret Service agent. She quickly realized that wasn’t the case.

She begged him to take the car instead. “No. You’re driving,” he said.

Before getting into the passenger’s seat next to Sisk, witnesses said, the gunman fired several shots around the neighborhood with what authorities later said was an “AR-15-style” semiautomatic rifle.

Other than telling her where to turn, the man said little during the mile drive down Pico Boulevard toward the college campus, Sisk said. He was calm, she said.

Sisk said she was crying and shaking as she drove. The gunman reassured her. “He told me to calm down,” she said. “He said he’d let me go if I didn’t do anything stupid.”

Near Cloverfield and Pico boulevards, the gunman allegedly fired at a city bus from front to back, shattering the windows. Passengers dived to the floor for cover, said Marta Fagerstroem, a student from Sweden who was on the bus and studying for an exam.

A woman sitting in the back row was grazed in the head by a bullet, witnesses said.

“It happened so fast,” said Fagerstroem, her voice quavering. “You don’t expect this.”

Sisk said that after shooting at the bus, the gunman shouted at her to “ ‘Go! Go! Go!’ So I drove, drove, drove.”

They continued toward the campus. At a school parking lot at 20th and Pearl streets, the gunman shot two in a Ford Explorer, police said. The driver died at the scene, and the passenger was badly wounded. Shortly afterward, Sisk said, the man ordered her to let him out. After he exited, she sped down the block and then got out of her car and ran.

By that time, officers from the Santa Monica Police Department and the college’s police force had received numerous 911 calls reporting the chaos.

The calls took on an even sharper edge with the president in town attending an event at the same time nearby. Federal authorities were quickly made aware of the situation.

Campus police intercepted the alleged gunman on the edge of campus and exchanged gunfire with him, authorities said. They continued to trade shots as the man ran toward the school’s library and shot a woman outside the building’s entrance before disappearing inside.

The woman outside the library later died at a hospital.

During the rampage, five people were wounded, two seriously, police said.

The library was filled with students studying for year-end exams and the gunman “accosted” several of them, Santa Monica Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks said, as he unleashed another barrage of bullets. Hearing the shots, panicked students ran from the building or hid in rooms and under tables.

Officers confronted the man, wounding him. They carried him outside, where he died on a sidewalk.

As police and rescue crews from several agencies descended on the campus, Santa Monica Airport became an impromptu staging area for helicopters ferrying in officers and waiting in case there were injured to be evacuated.

That forced a change in plan for Obama, who was scheduled to be flown by helicopter from Santa Monica Airport to Los Angeles International for departure on Air Force One. Instead, he was driven.

The investigation into the shooting led police to an apartment building on South Centinela Avenue in Los Angeles, where the alleged shooter was believed to have lived with his mother, sources said.

Mykel Denis, who lives in the next apartment, was questioned by police Friday afternoon. He said they asked whether he knew his two neighbors. He described the woman as “pleasant” and her son as “angry.” Court records show that Zawahri, the owner of the burned house, had divorced a woman named Randa Abdou, who now lives next door to Denis.

“Sounds really travel in the building and he had a very distinct voice,” Denis, 46, said of the son. “It was very low and loud. He was a very angry person.”

Denis said he would often hear the man through the walls “yelling, screaming and cursing.”

A few years ago, Denis said, he witnessed a particularly hostile exchange between the mother and son. As the young man screamed at his mother and stormed past Denis, Denis said he threatened to call police, and the young man replied: “Go ahead.”

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andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

Times staff writers Kate Mather, Rosanna Xia, Joseph Serna, Joel Rubin, Martha Groves, Angel Jennings, Samantha Schaefer and Scott Glover contributed to this report.


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