TRABUCO CANYON, Calif. (AP) — The cover band at the historic Southern California biker bar had just launched into their next song when the gunman walked in and opened fire.
Some froze, others ran as the bullets flew inside busy Cook’s Corner, which was holding its weekly spaghetti night on Wednesday.
The gunman then went outside and kept firing, witnesses said. Within minutes, deputies arrived and killed the shooter, a retired police officer, Orange County Sheriff’s Sgt. Frank Gonzalez said.
Three people were pronounced dead at the scene; six others were shot and taken to a hospital, officials said Thursday.
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. “He just is firing indiscriminately.”
The Orange County District Attorney’s Office identified the gunman as John Snowling, 59, a former Ventura police officer. His wife, who had filed for divorce, was injured in the shooting.
Betty Fruichantie told NBC4 Los Angeles that she was with the shooter’s estranged wife, Marie Snowling, who fell to the floor. With bullets flying past her face, Fruichantie ran and hid in a restroom with others.
“And when we came out, people were on the floor and people were like over people trying to help them, just holding their wounds,” she said.
Marie Snowling’s father, William Mosby, of Lake Forest, told The Orange County Register that his daughter was taken to a hospital after being shot. Mosby said he initially heard his daughter had been killed.
“I’m extremely relieved,” Mosby said. “What I heard was the worst.”
Providence Mission Hospital, in nearby Mission Viejo, said it treated six people who were shot. A woman shot in the jaw and a man shot in the chest were in critical condition, the hospital said in a statement. The four others were in stable condition.
Marie Snowling filed for divorce from John Snowling in December 2022, Ventura County online court records show. The case was scheduled for a mandatory settlement conference in November.
Mosby told the newspaper that John Snowling could not “deal with the divorce.”
Phone and email messages seeking comment were left for John Snowling’s attorney, Tristan Tegroen. Marie Snowling’s attorney, Kenneth Henjum, said early Thursday it was too soon to comment.
John Snowling had worked for the police department in Ventura, a coastal city north of Los Angeles, from 1986 to 2014. The Ventura County Star newspaper first reported that he was an officer there.
“Our hearts weigh heavy with the distressing incident at Cook’s Corner,” Ventura Police Chief Darin Schindler said in a statement. “Our deepest condolences are with the families of the victims, the survivors, and the Orange County deputies who swiftly responded to the scene. This incident deeply affects us all.”
Cook’s Corner has long been a place for motorcyclists to gather for live music, 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 bike paths. It attracts everyone from motorcycle riders on choppers to avid cyclists in Lycra and families with young children.
Hours before the shooting, rows of motorcycles and bikes framed the gravel entrance where plaques describe the bar’s history.
“We’ve experienced major earthquakes, forest fires, floods, recessions and other disasters. We’ve gotten through all of them and came out stronger. Ride down and check us out,” the bar says on its website.
M Street, which covers popular songs from the 1960s to today, had performed at Cook’s Corner before in the bar’s sprawling outdoor area, but this was the band’s first time on the stage inside, Mark and Debbie Johnson said.
The band finished up one song, and people who had been dancing sat down, holding egg shakers the band had given out, Debbie Johnson said.
Two people in the crowd were celebrating birthdays, and the band had wished them happy birthday and promised a special song later in the evening, she 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 fled and ran up a nearby hill.
Mark Johnson said that once the gunman went outside, he and others shut the doors. About 30 people hunkered down inside. He said he called 911 while watching the shooter go around the outside of the building.
“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 by gunfire and were expected to survive. The fifth member was not injured, they said.
“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.”