TRABUCO CANYON, Calif. (AP) — The retired police sergeant who opened fire during a lively Wednesday evening at a popular Southern California biker bar had traveled from Ohio to confront his estranged wife, shooting her in the face before turning his gun on the crowd, authorities said.
John Snowling killed three people, including his wife’s dining companion and a man who approached him as Snowling retrieved additional guns from his truck, and wounded six others, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said Thursday. He was fatally shot by deputies within minutes of the rampage.
The shooting unfolded as a cover band entertained guests during the bar’s popular weekly spaghetti night. Snowling entered the bar, walked up to Marie Snowling and immediately shot her without saying a word, authorities said. Some patrons froze and others ran as bullets flew inside the bar before Snowling went out to the parking lot and continued to fire, witnesses and authorities said.
As the shooting began, M Street band keyboardist Mark Johnson hid behind a speaker with his wife, singer Debbie Johnson.
“Once he started shooting, it was very indiscriminate,” Mark Johnson said.
Snowling, 59, was a retired police sergeant with the Ventura Police Department in Southern California. His wife, Marie Snowling, had filed for divorce in December 2022, citing irreconcilable differences. The proceedings were ongoing and the case was scheduled for a mandatory settlement conference in November.
Married for more than three decades, they have two adult children.
Officials said John Snowling traveled from Ohio, where he had been living on a 7-acre property with his dog, according to his divorce lawyer, Tristan teGroen. It was unclear when he arrived in Southern California, where he still owns property in Camarillo. There was “no murmur of domestic violence or threats or anything like that from the other attorney,” teGroen said.
John Snowling used two guns at the beginning of the shooting and then retrieved two more from his truck. All four — three handguns and a shotgun — were purchased legally, Barnes said.
Authorities identified one of the dead as John Leehey, 67, of Irvine, California. The other two weren’t named, including the woman dining with Marie Snowling. After being shot, the woman exited the bar and was able to make it to the roadway before dying, Barnes said.
All nine people shot were adults. Marie Snowling was conscious and speaking but remained hospitalized Thursday, Barnes said.
William Mosby, of Lake Forest, a father figure to Marie Snowling, told The Orange County Register, that John Snowling could not “deal with the divorce.”
Kenneth H.J. Henjum, Marie Snowling’s attorney, said in an email that her family was in shock and was requesting privacy.
John Snowling had worked for the police department in coastal Ventura, northwest of Los Angeles, from 1986 to 2014. Ventura Police Chief Darin Schindler issued a statement expressing condolences to the victims’ families, the survivors and the responding deputies.
Cook’s Corner has long been a place for motorcyclists to gather for bands, open-mic nights or just a cold beer after a long ride. It calls itself the oldest motorcycle bar in Southern California and sits at the intersection of two picturesque highways in an area of scrubby hills and bicycle trails. It attracts everyone from motorcycle riders on choppers to avid cyclists in Lycra and families with young children.
“It’s a Disneyland for bikers,” said Kamran Amiri, who has been a Cook’s Corner regular for two decades.
Amiri, who was there Wednesday but left before the shooting, said the bar is “just full of the friendliest people” who go there to chat over a drink, listen to music or show off their motorcycles.
Hours before the shooting, rows of motorcycles and bikes framed the gravel entrance.
M Street had performed in Cook’s Corner’s outdoor area before, but this was the band’s first time on the stage inside, Mark and Debbie Johnson said.
Two people in the crowd were celebrating birthdays, and the band promised a special song later in the evening, Debbie Johnson said.
It never came.
“We launched into our next song and somewhere in the middle of it this man just walks in, doesn’t say a word, and just starts shooting,” she said.
Some bargoers ran up a nearby hill.
Mark Johnson said that once the gunman went outside, he and about 30 others shut the doors and hunkered down inside. Johnson called 911.
“We opened the back gate to see where he was and he immediately started shooting,” he said.
He and his wife said two of their fellow bandmembers were wounded and were expected to survive. The fifth member wasn’t injured.
“I have never been so happy to see dozens of police cars heading my way,” Debbie Johnson said. “We were fish in a very small barrel.”
This story has been updated to correct that William Mosby was Marie Snowling’s is a father figure to Snowling, not her actual father.
Taxin reported from Santa Ana, Calif., and Antczak from Los Angeles. Stefanie Dazio and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.