LOS ANGELES — A gunman who officials say killed three people and wounded six others Wednesday night at a landmark biker bar in Trabuco Canyon was a former police officer, according to officials.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer identified the gunman as John Snowling, a retired sergeant from the Ventura Police Department. Snowling, 59, was targeting his estranged wife, who was reportedly a regular at the bar, according to two law enforcement sources who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The gunman was also killed Wednesday night, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department posted on social media.
Sheriff’s officials received a 911 call just after 7 p.m. about the shooting at the Cook’s Corner bar on Santiago Canyon Road. The first deputies arrived within two minutes. Deputies found a man with a gun, and multiple deputies opened fire, officials said.
Law enforcement sources told the Los Angeles Times that deputies pinned Snowling down beside a silver truck, and his body remained next to the truck Wednesday night.
Snowling had two handguns and a shotgun, according to a law enforcement source with detailed knowledge who was not authorized to discuss the investigation and requested anonymity. The shotgun was used in a gun battle with deputies in a parking area, the source said.
The six people who were injured in the shooting were taken to Providence Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo on Wednesday night. Two were in critical condition — a man who was shot in the chest and a woman who was shot in the jaw, according to James Chisum, a spokesman for the hospital. The woman was transferred overnight to UC Irvine Medical Center, Chisum confirmed Thursday.
The four other victims, all men, were stable, Chism said. One was released from the hospital late Wednesday, and two others with minor injuries were expected to be released soon. The fourth man, shot in the arm, is likely to have surgery Thursday.
Authorities did not provide additional details about the identities of the victims.
Law enforcement sources said Snowling’s estranged wife, Marie Snowling, survived being shot and is hospitalized.
Mark Johnson, pianist for the Orange County band that was performing at the bar Wednesday night, said two members of the M-Street Band “were hit and were hospitalized but stable.”
Johnson, drummer Brian Lynch and singer Debbie Johnson said in a video that guitarist Ed Means and bassist Dave Stretch were in the hospital. Lynch said they were “all going to be OK.”
On Thursday morning, Orange County sheriff’s deputies were seen serving a search warrant at Snowling’s address in Camarillo.
Snowling worked for the Ventura Police Department from 1986 to 2014, rising to the rank of sergeant, according to a department spokesman. He served as the president of the city’s police union in 2008 and 2009, records show.
In December 2022, Marie Snowling filed for divorce. A hearing was scheduled for later this year, records show.
James Goldsmith, 68, lived two doors down from the Snowlings in Camarillo for more than two decades. Marie Snowling had moved out to live with her sick mother in Orange County, he said, adding that he knew the couple had been going through “marital issues” but never heard any shouting or saw the police come by due to domestic disputes.
“John was always kind of a standoffish kind of person,” Goldsmith said. “He wasn’t the most personable guy, not that I can say that there was anything really negative. He wasn’t the type of neighbor that you’d get the warm fuzzies from.”
He described Marie Snowling as an “absolute sweetheart.” She was the more social one of the couple, according to Goldsmith, who would often see her walking her dog outside. When Goldsmith’s son was younger, he would play with the Snowlings’ son, Patrick.
Goldsmith didn’t know whether Marie had a new partner but said she often posted on Facebook about her life after filing for divorce.
“I think it reached a point where it felt like life was passing her by because he didn’t want to do anything,” Goldsmith said. “He would barely maintain the house. I think she wanted to have friends and live life, and that’s why I think she made the move that she did. It’s sad that he couldn’t allow that and let her live her own life.”
Snowling moved his parents into the house next door about 20 years ago, where he helped care for them before they both died, Goldsmith said. Snowling had recently purchased a house in Ohio and was staying there most of the time; Goldsmith most recently saw him come back a few months ago to do some maintenance work on the house.
The shooting occurred in the middle of $8 Spaghetti Night at Cook’s Corner. Geoffrey Kagy, 52, is a regular at the bar with his girlfriend, Jacqueline Bass. On Wednesday night, she was at Cook’s Corner without him — but around 7:30 p.m. she suddenly sent Kagy a volley of text messages. The first said “911,” followed by “Help” and “Omg.” She’d been inside Cook’s Corner when the gunman opened fire.
When they spoke by phone, Kagy said, “she just kept saying how she was running and that she saw somebody shoot.”
At about 7:07 p.m. Wednesday, a dispatcher on the radio channel for local California Highway Patrol troopers said: “Male came in and started shooting. Eight shots were fired. White male. Plaid shirt and jeans. Still shooting. Possibly active shooter.”
Emergency dispatchers reported hearing gunshots in the background of radio traffic as multiple deputies arrived at the bar, Orange County Undersheriff Jeff Hallock said at a late-night news conference Wednesday.
In a video posted to Facebook by Betty Fruichantie, a friend of Marie Snowling’s, first responders are seen putting victims on gurneys to be taken to the hospital. Fruichantie wrote that the gunman fired “4 or 6 shots” at her but missed.
In the video, Fruichantie pans to a woman being wheeled away on a stretcher.
“Oh, Marie … ,” she says.
Fruichantie mentioned in Facebook comments that she was sharing a table with Marie Snowling before the shooting and later learned that the gunman was her friend’s estranged husband.
“He shot her in the face,” she wrote. “They transported her to the ER.”
The Times reached out to Fruichantie but didn’t immediately hear back.
Gus Gunderman, 60, stopped by Cook’s Corner on Wednesday evening for a bite to eat and had left just minutes before the shooting started. The bar was filled with patrons sipping beers as the band prepared for their set. On the patio, families sat devouring large plates of spaghetti and salad.
Gunderman ordered a burger and a soda, not remembering it was all-you-can-eat spaghetti night. Looking back, he’s grateful for that decision.
“Had I ordered spaghetti I would have gotten another plate or more salad, and then I would have been in the thick of it,” Gunderman said. “It’s a tragedy.”
Cook’s Corner, which sits at the juncture of El Toro, Santiago Canyon and Live Oak Canyon roads near O’Neill Regional Park, is known as a biker bar as well as a family-friendly spot where patrons often bring their children for an inexpensive weeknight dinner. It’s a popular haunt among local riders who want to avoid freeway congestion and enjoy the winding route through the hills to get there.
In the four decades he’s frequented the eatery, Gunderman said he’s never once felt unsafe.
“I’ve never even seen a fight there. This could have happened anywhere,” he said. “It has nothing to do with motorcycles or motorcycle culture.”
News of the shooting brought concern from local officials and residents.
“I’m heartbroken by the news of yet another mass shooting tonight, this time at Cook’s Corner, a historic bar in the heart of Orange County,” state Sen. Dave Min, an Irvine Democrat, said in a statement. “My heart breaks for the families and loved ones of the victims.”
“It’s disturbing to learn that another domestic dispute led to another mass shooting. We must do more to prevent senseless acts of gun violence and protect survivors,” said Orange County Supervisor Katrina Foley.
Cook’s Corner was named after Andrew Jackson Cook, who got about 190 acres of Aliso Canyon in a land trade in 1884, according to a Times story. His son, Earl Jack “E.J.” Cook, opened a roadside hamburger joint in 1931. Soon after Prohibition ended in 1933, alcohol was added to the menu, and Cook’s Corner became a full-fledged bar. In 1946, Cook bought an old mess hall from the Santa Ana Army Air Base, hauled it up El Toro Road, and the tavern was born.
Motorcycle riders discovered the place in the 1970s, and it has been a popular spot for decades.
On Thursday morning, Erwin Lima stood outside the police tape blocking the two-lane road that leads to Cook’s Corner with a look of concern on his face.
The Victorville resident has worked weekends detailing motorcycles at Cook’s Corner since 2007. He drove to the scene hoping to learn anything he could about the condition of his co-workers and friends.
“I couldn’t believe it when I started getting calls,” said Lima, 54. He turned on the TV to learn that four people had been killed.
“My body just shut down,” Lima said. He later learned that a bullet had grazed his friend Thomas’ arm in the shooting. Thomas, who is in his 50s, works in the bar’s kitchen.
Marie Snowling frequented the bar most weekends for the live music, Lima said. Sometimes it would get so crowded that she’d bring her own chair so she’d have somewhere to sit.
“Everywhere now is shootings: schools, bars, church,” he said.
Los Angeles Times staff writers Terry Castleman, Connor Sheets and Gabriel San Román contributed to this report.