Published June 10, 2013
SANTA MONICA, Calif. – Debra Fine lived to tell of her encounter with a heavily armed gunman who killed five people and wounded her and others in a Santa Monica rampage.
Though the attacker had spiky hair, black clothing and a ballistics vest, what she remembers most were the eyes — cold, hard, intense.
"No hesitation, no flick of a muscle, nothing. Just absolutely staring and going onto the next step," Fine recalled. "I just simply got in his way. And he needed to kill me. That was it."
She recognized the eyes in a 2006 high school yearbook photo of John Zawahri shown to her by The Associated Press.
Investigators trying to determine why Zawahri planned the shooting spree focused on a deadly act of domestic violence that touched off the mayhem. They were also looking into whether he had a mental health issue.
Police said he fatally shot his father and older brother at a home that went up in flames before taking the violence to the streets, which lasted less than 15 minutes until he was shot to death in a chaotic scene at the Santa Monica College library by police.
Investigators were hoping his mother, who returned early from a trip abroad and was interviewed Sunday by police, could help provide clues about what triggered the violence.
"A big piece of the puzzle just came home," Sgt. Richard Lewis said.
The killing began as a domestic violence incident when Zawahri killed his father, Samir, 55, and brother, Christopher, 24, in their home near Interstate 10 in a working-class part of town a few miles from the beachside attractions that draw tourists year-round.
The gunman, carrying a duffel bag with 1,300 rounds of ammo, fired shots in the neighborhood and took his rampage on the road.
Fine was the first stranger shot by Zawahri. She was using side streets after her singing lesson to avoid traffic from President Barack Obama's visit three miles away when the gunman motioned at the car of the woman in front of her with his rifle, telling her to pull over.
Fine thought the man was providing security for the president's visit. Then he pointed the rifle at the woman and started to yell.
Upset that he would yell at someone who cooperated, Fine accelerated.
"He looked right at me," Fine said. "Stared right at me and then shot. No hesitation."
Zawahri then walked toward her, shooting again. Fine was hit in the shoulder, arm and ear, and she lay on the passenger seat, pretending to be dead. Zawahri, meanwhile, carjacked the woman he'd stopped and directed her to Santa Monica College, firing at bystanders along the way and shooting up a city bus.
At the college, he blasted a Ford Explorer driven by Carlos Navarro Franco, 68, killing the driver and his daughter, Marcela Franco, 26, who died Sunday. The father was a longtime groundskeeper at the college and was taking his daughter to buy textbooks for summer classes.
On foot, Zawahri headed for the library, spraying gunfire around campus as students, who were in the middle of final exams, took cover in classrooms or bolted for their lives. He fatally shot one woman in the head and then casually strolled past a cart of books into the library where he fired 70 shots without striking anyone.
In a shootout with three police officers, Zawahri was struck multiple times. His body was taken outside, where he was pronounced dead.
A small cache of ammunition was found in a room of the burned down house.
The elder Zawahri brought his family to the neighborhood of small homes and apartment buildings tucked up against Interstate 10 in the mid-1990s, according to property records.
Not long after arriving on Yorkshire Avenue, Zawahri and his wife Randa Abdou, 54, went through a difficult divorce and split custody of their two boys, said Thomas O'Rourke, a neighbor. When the sons got older, one went to live with his mother while the other stayed with the father.
Public records show Abdou, who lives in an apartment a couple miles away, was the ex-wife of Samir Zawahri and former co-owner of the house where the first shooting took place.
John Zawahri had a run-in with police seven years ago, but Police Chief Jacqueline Seabrooks wouldn't offer more details because he was a juvenile at the time. She said the gunman was enrolled at Santa Monica College in 2010.
Home from the hospital on Sunday, Fine recalled the moments after she was shot. Neighbors had come to help her, one holding towels to her wounds. Fifteen minutes later paramedics arrived. Her husband Russell Fine said he rushed to her side by using the family GPS tracking feature on his phone to pinpoint her location.
"When I got ... into the trauma room and I heard one of the doctors say, 'Two more have arrived but they're DOA,' that's when I realized that this was part of something bigger, and that his intent had been to kill people," Fine said. "I'm just, I feel very, very lucky to be here."
"I've always been right in the middle on the gun control issue, and I'm not anymore," she added. "When are we going to get the guns out of the hands of the people who are mentally ill, or when is there enough proof that it's very dangerous to have those types of weapons out there?"
Associated Press writer Christopher Weber contributed to this story. Tami Abdollah can be reached at: http://www.twitter.com/latams