Man accused in fatal beating of 94-year-old neighbor pleads not guilty to murder

By Kelly Wheeler,

City News Service

A Ramona man accused in the beating death of his 94-year-old neighbor pleaded not guilty Friday to a first-degree murder charge and was ordered held on $3.5 million bail.

Deputy District Attorney David Williams III said the victim — Mary Jean Eskridge — believed Gary Allen Thomas was a trusted friend and allowed her 63-year-old neighbor to spend the night in the guest bedroom of her mobile home the night of April 30.

The next morning, Thomas grabbed a hammer out of a toolbox in the victim’s kitchen, proceeded down the hall and beat Eskridge to death as she slept, the prosecutor alleged.

Friends and relatives of the victim sobbed as Williams outlined the crime to El Cajon Superior Court Judge Charles Ervin.

“This defendant’s willingness to use a position of trust to attack and kill the victim in this case demonstrates how dangerous he is to the community,” Williams said.

Eskridge was a long-standing resident of the Ramona Terrace Estates mobile home park, he said.

Thomas’ attorney said her client had lived for about six years at Ramona Terrace Estates in the 1200 block of H Street, where he was arrested Wednesday afternoon.

Eskridge, who was still active in church and senior center activities, was found in a bedroom of her mobile home about 11:30 a.m. Tuesday by paramedics responding to an activated medical alert bracelet.

Authorities declined to disclose a possible motive for the slaying.

The District Attorney’s Office is asking anyone with knowledge of Thomas’ background or history to contact San Diego Crime Stoppers at 888-580-8477.

Eskridge, a professional dancer in the big band era, was the longtime owner of Jean’s Dance Studio in Spring Valley. The studio is now run by her daughter. The victim also had three sons.

Thomas, who faces 26 years to life in prison if convicted, is due back at the El Cajon courthouse on May 17 for a preliminary hearing.

   
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