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Santa Monica shooter's background steeped in trauma, violence

An English teacher once saw John Zawahri surfing the Internet for assault weapons. Within days, the police were involved and Zawahri was admitted to UCLA's psychiatric ward.

June 10, 2013|By Robin Abcarian, Jessica Garrison and Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times
  • An undated photograph of John Zawahri, 23, whom police identified as the gunman in Friday's deadly shooting rampage that ended at Santa Monica College.
An undated photograph of John Zawahri, 23, whom police identified as the…

At Olympic High, Santa Monica's alternative school for students who have struggled in traditional programs, inappropriate behavior is not uncommon. But what a veteran English teacher saw on the computer screen of a student named John Zawahri stopped him cold.

The solitary teen who regularly ditched class was surfing the Internet for assault weapons, the teacher recalled Monday. Alarmed, he sent Zawahri to the principal's office. Within days, the police were involved and Zawahri was admitted to UCLA's psychiatric ward.

The teacher, who requested anonymity, on Monday recounted the 2006 incident at Olympic as Santa Monica College reopened its campus after a deadly rampage Friday in which authorities say Zawahri, armed with an assault rifle, gunned down five people.

PHOTOS: Santa Monica shootings

With the last of those victims identified, the focus turned to what motivated Zawahri, who was shot to death by police outside the college library, and how he obtained the rifle and another weapon.

Authorities are tracing two firearms used by Zawahri. One weapon was a .44-caliber handgun that a federal law enforcement official described as a "curio- or relic-type" weapon that might have been in the shooter's family for years. The second was an AR-15 type semiautomatic rifle. Investigators are looking into whether Zawahri's possession of the gun was prohibited under California's long-standing assault weapons ban. The rifle was being examined Monday at the Sheriff's Department crime lab, a local law enforcement source said.

"We've been at his house, going through his computer too," the federal official said.

Authorities want to know how Zawahri, an unemployed 23-year-old with what associates said was a history of mental problems, obtained vast quantities of ammunition. Several sources said Zawahri had 40 large-capacity magazines in pouches in his clothing and in a bag he carried. Each magazine held about 30 rounds. The ammunition was strapped to his body — including his chest and thighs — as well as in pouches in his clothing and protective vest, they added.

Those searches may provide insight into Zawahri's mind-set in the months and years leading up the shootings. Authorities say Zawahri first killed his father, Samir, 55, and older brother, Christopher, 25, at their Yorkshire Avenue home before carjacking a motorist and forcing her at gunpoint to drive him to the campus. Along the way he fired on other vehicles, including a sedan, a bus and a sport-utility vehicle carrying Santa Monica college groundskeeper Carlos Franco, 68, and his daughter, Marcela, 26. Both died. Police identified his last victim Monday as Margarita Gomez, a 68-year-old who was visiting the campus to collect cans.

Why Zawahri targeted the college remained unclear Monday. A school spokesman said Zawahri as well as his father and brother had been part-time students there, but there was no indication of Zawahri having animosity toward the school. A woman who was carjacked by Zawahri said he specifically demanded to be taken to the college.

"There is no history of any kind of disciplinary issue with him in our records," said Don Girard, a senior director at the college.

He said transcripts show Zawahri was "sporadically" enrolled in the school's Entertainment Technology program in 2009 and 2010, taking courses in animation and video game development. School records show he had not been on campus for class since the fall of 2010.

Zawahri attended public schools in Santa Monica, studying briefly at Santa Monica High School, where one classmate said he remembered him as a silent boy who favored black hooded sweat shirts. Later at Olympic, he made few friends. After word spread through school about his Web-surfing for assault weapons, a classmate approached the English teacher with a disturbing tale, the teacher recalled Monday.

The young man said that Zawahri had invited him to his home, showed him a samurai sword and named other students at Olympic whom he wanted to hurt, the teacher said. He said he informed the principal, and within days police had searched Zawahri's home and he was taken to UCLA's Neuropsychiatric Institute. He did not remain in the hospital long, which shocked school officials, the teacher recalled.

"We all said, why in hell did they let him out? But they had their legal reasons," the teacher said.

Santa Monica police have said its officers dealt with the gunman in connection with an incident in 2006 but declined to provide details because he was a juvenile at the time. School officials referred questions to Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Supt. Sandra Lyon, who declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.

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