Authorities say the shooter at Cook’s Corner, John Patrick Snowling, was taking his marital complaints, however misguided, public.
If true, experts say it’s the latest in a long string of examples of how marital friction, guns and silence can combine to end in death.
Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said this week that Snowling, a 59-year-old retired Ventura Police Department sergeant, was specifically targeting his soon-to-be ex-wife when he walked into the family-friendly biker bar in Trabuco Canyon on Wednesday, Aug. 23 and shot nine people, killing three.
That his wife was among those who were gravely injured, not killed, and that Snowling died during a shootout with Orange County Sheriff’s deputies, not by his own hand, are only slight variations in what experts describe as a grim pattern: When domestic violence escalates to its apex and turns deadly, what was private often becomes public, and the range of victims often spreads beyond the fighting couple.
It’s also not rare.
In Orange County, an intimate partner, usually a wife or girlfriend, is killed about once every six weeks, usually by a current or former partner, such as a husband or boyfriend. That statistic comes out of a 2022 report by researchers at UC Irvine, who tracked 11 years’ worth of county data connected to local domestic-violence-related homicides.
Cases studied in the Domestic Violence Fatality Review resulted in 113 fatalities, including intimate partners and children and strangers, as well the killers themselves, about a third of whom died by suicide.
Anecdotally, domestic violence has been part of several local high-profile homicides – from an Aug. 3 shooting in which an allegedly inebriated Orange County Superior Court judge allegedly drew a gun from an ankle holster and used it to shoot his wife, to the 2011 massacre at Salon Meritage in Seal Beach, in which an angry ex-husband shot and killed his ex-wife and seven others.
It’s unclear if the violence that took place at Cook’s Corner was preceded by physical violence during the Snowlings’ marriage. The couple’s divorce records, filed late last year in Ventura County, do not include complaints of physical abuse or any requests for restraining orders.
But if there was emotional abuse – something that reportedly was part of their marriage – the leap to homicide also wouldn’t be particularly unusual. Only about half the cases studied by UC Irvine involved previous connections to police or courts, and in many others the first public sign of physical violence was a homicide.
“When the abuse escalates to this stage it impacts more than just the victims. It impacts everybody,” said Maricela Rios-Faust, chief executive of Human Options, a non-profit that helps abuse victims and works to reduce domestic violence.
“And it very much is a public health issue.”
Human Options also was part of the 2022 report from UC Irvine. And Rios-Faust noted that the report included data from the Salon Meritage shooting, which was the county’s most lethal mass shooting.
That massacre, she said, mirrored the events at Cook’s Corner in several ways. Critically, she said both shootings were carried out by aggrieved ex-spouses who were taking their abuse public.
“It’s a pattern,” Rios-Faust said. “It goes from behind closed doors to a very public display.”
Jane Stoever, a law professor at UC Irvine and director of the UCI Initiative to End Family Violence, which conducted the report on local domestic violence deaths, also noted parallels between the two incidents.
“Our county is forever haunted by the Seal Beach Salon Meritage massacre, and now the Cook’s Corner mass shooting, and should be motivated to change.”
Family courts, Stoever added, could be “the site for early intervention, public health approaches, and taking seriously domestic violence – for the safety of families and communities.” Other experts also say outside channels – police, courts, counselors – can play a role in preventing domestic violence, or keeping it from escalating.
Rios-Faust said several local police agencies, including Irvine, Santa Ana and Anaheim, are starting to focus on domestic disputes as a way to prevent violence and homicides. She said emotional and physical abuse are fundamentally similar and prone to escalate over time, and that when police officers and others incorporate that knowledge into their work they can see potential future danger in even seemingly minor incidents.
All abuse, physical or otherwise, is “ultimately about control,” Rios-Faust said. And big changes in a relationship, such as divorce filings and separation, can lead to emotional manipulation escalating into physical confrontation that can result in a death.
“Things can build up fairly quickly,” Rios-Faust said. “That’s something that I don’t think everybody realizes.”
Another common thread is guns. The shooters in Seal Beach and at Cook’s Corner, for example, both owned several weapons and used them to carry out violence against spouses.
Research suggests that, too, is a theme.
A study published last year in the Annals of Internal Medicine – in which researchers funded by Stanford University and the National Collaborative on Gun Violence Research tracked all deaths in California over a 12-year period – found that homicide rates were twice as high for people living with a gun owner when compared with people who don’t live with gun owners. And when looking only at homicides that occurred in homes, the Stanford researchers found that spouses or intimate partners were seven times more likely to be killed if their partner owned a gun, and that 84% of the victims in those cases were female. (In the UCI study, about 88% of the victims were identified as female.)
Experts say such statistics are why domestic violence needs to be treated as a public health issue.
“A public health approach is needed in addition to legal protections as people experience job loss, financial crisis, divorce, custody disputes, or domestic violence charges,” Stoever said.
“From a public health perspective and all that we know of lethality risks, when someone feels they are losing everything or has a dramatic life shift, this is an especially important time for someone else to hold their guns. A public health approach can bring about cultural change around firearms the same way that the campaigns against smoking did in recent decades.”
It’s also part of why California’s red flag gun law includes an option in which spouses can ask courts to remove guns from a domestic partner if they feel threatened. But that rule is only starting to be encouraged by some police departments and prosecutors, and only in some jurisdictions.
That said, if domestic violence is to be treated as a public health issue – and result in fewer shootings like what transpired at Cook’s Corner – Rios-Faust and others say long-standing stigmas about it need to end.
“I think we’re making progress to getting people to want to talk about it,” Rios-Faust said.
“But there’s still a lot of room to grow on that,” she added. “It’s still hard for people to recognize there’s a pattern, and that it only escalates.”