By Neal Putnam
A judge on Monday halted the playing of a videotape that showed Gary Allen Thomas confessing to killing his neighbor, Mary Jean Eskridge, 94, by saying he had heard enough, and he ordered Thomas to stand trial for murder.
In a bizarre interview with sheriff’s detectives, Thomas, 63, quickly admitted to repeatedly striking Eskridge with a hammer while she slept on May 1 in her mobile home in the Ramona Terrace Estates at 1212 H St.
“I just wanted to kill somebody,” said Thomas.
“Why did you want to kill somebody?” asked sheriff’s Detective Suzanne Fiske.
“I just wanted to kill somebody,” Thomas repeated almost in a monotone.
“Where did you get that impulse?” asked Fiske.
“I’ve had it quite awhile,” said Thomas, adding he had the urge “forever.”
“Have you killed anyone else?” asked Fiske.
“No,” replied Thomas.
Fiske testified that Thomas knew the victim had been killed with a hammer, but that information had not yet been disclosed. Thomas said he struck Eskridge in the head while she was sleeping.
“Was it more than once?” asked Fiske.
“Oh, yeah,” replied Thomas.
“OK. Were you angry?” asked Fiske.
“No,” he replied. “I just felt like it.”
Fiske pressed him to give a reason, and he replied, “No reason.”
Chillingly, Thomas added: “I was watching her gurgle as she slowly died.”
The courtroom was filled with Ramona residents and family members who knew the victim and the crowd reacted with silent horror and shock.
“Why Jean?” asked Fiske.
“She was the easiest target,” replied Thomas.
With that comment, El Cajon Superior Court Judge Lantz Lewis quickly ordered the videotape stopped and went into chambers with both attorneys for about six minutes.
When they returned, Lewis said he had heard enough evidence, saying there was probable cause for him to order Thomas to stand trial.
Lewis asked Thomas’ attorney, Thomas Carnessale, and Deputy District Attorney Dave Williams III, if they wished to argue, and both attorneys submitted the matter to Lewis without any comments.
Lewis quickly ordered Thomas to stand trial for murder and told him to next appear in court on Sept. 20 to set a trial date.
Throughout the hearing, Thomas looked down at the floor or table and never looked at the audience. Lewis told him to look at him when he ordered him to stand trial, and he lifted his head slightly.
Afterward, Eskridge’s daughter, Suzanne Mollenhauer, was interviewed by KGTV (Channel 10), and said she was shocked and angered to hear Thomas’ comments for the first time.
“I was kinda stunned. It wasn’t something I expected him to say,” said Mollenhauer. “I’m angry that this person took my mother away from me for whatever he was feeling on that day.”
“Her birthday was just last week, and so we went to the cemetery, visited her, and told her this was coming up today, and to give us strength,” Mollenhauer told KGTV.
Also testifying was Angela Rozsa, a San Diego Police officer who examined Thomas’s computer. She said Thomas made a number of Google searches about “death by falling,” suicide, and “death by temple hit.”
Rozsa said one Google search asked “how long to bleed to death from a cut throat.”
Eskridge had developed a friendship with Thomas, who took her to lunches at the Ramona Senior Center. He lived nearby, but she let him stay overnight in the guest room on May 1.
Melanie Bisher, the manager of the mobile home park, testified she noticed Thomas walking in and out of the yellow crime scene tape during the investigation and told him to stop.
Donald Doughey testified he saw Thomas walk to the dumpster and throw away something small that was in his hand and he notified deputies about it.
Robert Chambers testified Thomas showed up at the senior center without Eskridge on May 1 and when he asked him where she was, Thomas shrugged his shoulders. Helen Bible testified Thomas’ hair was “out of kilter” that same day.
Eskridge owned and operated Jean’s Dance Studio in Spring Valley from 1948 to 1987 when her daughter took over the studio, according to her obituary. A widow, she still led an active life, feeding ducks, playing canasta, and attending church and Bible study and Friday evening dances.
Eskridge started a dance group in the mid-1990s at the mobile home clubhouse. She is survived by five children, 16 grandchildren, 23 great-grandchildren, and eight great-great-grandchildren.
Not much is known about Thomas. He told deputies he was a retired machinist. He is divorced and lived in the mobile home park for about six years. When Fiske asked him for any emergency contact person, he said there was “no one.”
If convicted of first-degree murder, Thomas faces a sentence of 26 years to life in prison. He remains in jail on $3.5 million bail and has pleaded not guilty.