By Neal Putnam
The Ramona man who brutally killed Jean Eskridge with a hammer while she was asleep pleaded guilty Monday to first-degree murder and was told he would have to serve at least 26 years before he could be eligible for parole.
Wearing blue jail clothes and speaking softly, Gary Allen Thomas, 64, admitted he used a deadly weapon to kill Eskridge, 94, on May 1, 2012, in her mobile home in the Ramona Terrace Estates.
Thomas withdrew his earlier insanity plea before El Cajon Superior Court Judge Allan Preckel, who set sentencing for June 26. Thomas remains in the Vista Detention Facility without bail.
Preckel told Thomas he must serve “26 actual years” before he could be considered for parole and that it was likely he would die in prison. Thomas said he understood that.
His attorney, Tom Carnessale, hinted that he did not advise Thomas to plead guilty. “We’ve been discussing this position for some time. This is what he wants to do,” said Carnessale to the judge.
Watching in the audience were 17 people who included Eskridge’s children, family, and friends. They met afterward with Deputy District Attorney David Williams III.
“He will not leave prison alive,” said Williams.
“The defendant committed a terrible crime against a beloved member of the East County community,” said Williams. “Jean Eskridge taught dance to generations of children and was a small business owner for virtually her entire life. The defendant killed her by striking her eight times in the head with a hammer while she slept.”
The motive for the crime seems elusive other than statements Thomas made to sheriff’s detectives. Thomas said he “forever” had a desire to kill somebody and finally acted upon it after he spent the night in a guest bedroom in her home.
Williams said he was told Thomas pleaded guilty so he would avoid a trial in which more gruesome details of the murder would be aired. At his preliminary hearing, a judge heard Thomas’ confession for 10 minutes and then stopped the videotape, saying he had heard enough and ordered him to stand trial.
The prosecutor said two court-appointed psychiatrists examined Thomas in jail after his insanity plea, but it was determined he did not qualify for an insanity defense. Thomas apparently had no psychiatric history that usually accompanies an insanity defense.
Not much is known about Thomas. He has no prior criminal record, was divorced, and lived alone in another mobile home near where Eskridge lived.
Eskridge owned Jean’s Dance Studio in Spring Valley from 1948 to 1987 and her daughter took over the studio. She was a lifetime member of National Association of Dance Artists and she enjoyed dances at the mobile home park.