Residents of Ramona Terrace Estates mobile park say 94-year-old Mary Jean Eskridge, known also as Jean
Eskridge Freeman according to family members, was active and at events just before her death was reported on Tuesday, May 1.
They also say Terrace Estates resident Gary Allen Thomas, who was arrested for her murder on May 2, drove her to many places, including church and lunches at Ramona Senior Center, and accompanied her to dances at the mobile home park. Thomas has pleaded not guilty to a first-degree murder charge.
Eskridge’s family members said on May 1 that Thomas, 63, was kind of a caregiver for her as he drove her around, picked up groceries for her, and checked in on her.
Residents of Terrace Estates said Eskridge attended the mobile home park’s country western dance on April 28, along with Thomas; was at church at Cavalry Chapel on April 29, with Thomas; and played cards at the Terrace Estates clubhouse on April 30.
Eskridge’s son, Jay Eskridge, said his mother was scheduled to go to the Santa Ysabel casino on May 2. She loved going to the casinos, Jay said.
Although residents have reported that Thomas showed up for lunch at the senior center on May 1, Ray Cardona, executive director of the senior center, said he could not comment.
Terrace Estates resident Janet Will, who saw Eskridge walk into Calvary Chapel with Thomas on the Sunday before her death, spoke fondly of Eskridge.
“Jeanie was always very, very pleasant,” she said. “She was kind of an inspirational lady. She always had this great smile and you could see she was just enjoying so much.”
Eskridge loved to dance, her family and friends said. She began dancing at an early age and in 1948 opened Jean’s Dance Studio in Spring Valley. In 1987, her daughter, Suzanne Mollenhauer, took over the studio, but Eskridge continued to teach dance until she was nearly 80 years old, reported family members.
At Terrace Estates, Eskridge was always seen at the Friday happy hour, where she constantly danced as the band played, said residents.
“She would come to our practices on Thursdays just to hear us play,” said Ramona Revelers band member and Terrace Estates resident George Newman. “She was always smiling. She just loved our music. We’re going to miss her.”
Newman said Thomas brought her to the dances and seemed nice.
Donna Azzolina, also a Terrace Estates resident, said she saw Thomas at the happy hour dances with Eskridge and he seemed to take good care of her and would bring her food, but he never danced and didn’t socialize.
“He didn’t talk to people, he didn’t wave. He wasn’t sociable,” Azzolina said.
Denise Woodward was at the country western dance on April 28 and said she noticed Thomas sitting off by himself, away from the crowd, with his back to the festivities.
“I always had kind of bad vibes about him,” Woodward said.
At the Terrace Estates happy hour on May 4, Newman said a table held a photo of Eskridge and flowers. The band played her favorite song, “Blue Hawaii,” he said.
Newman is still confounded by the allegation that Thomas killed Eskridge and beat her with a hammer.
“This is the most unbelievable thing that could happen,” Newman said. “I saw this guy every week. It’s just incomprehensible.”
Eskridge, who formerly lived in Spring Valley, had lived in the Terrace Estates for 30 years, said family members. Her famly includes three sons and a daughter. Family members live in Spring Valley, Alpine and Rancho San Diego.