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Gunman in California rampage once held for psychiatric evaluation

A Los Angeles County Sheriff patrol car is parked at the campus of Santa Monica College in Santa Monica, California, June 8, 2013. REUTERS/J
A Los Angeles County Sheriff patrol car is parked at the campus of Santa Monica College in Santa Monica, California, June 8, 2013. REUTERS/J

By Steve Gorman and Dana Feldman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The slain California gunman who killed five people in a rampage through Santa Monica was a onetime digital-media student who endured a troubled home life and spent several days as a teen in the psychiatric unit of a hospital, according to police, college officials and court records.

A fragmented portrait of the suspect, John Zawahri, took clearer shape on Monday as police continued to investigate what led him to lash out in a spasm of gun violence that claimed a total of six lives, including his own, on the eve of his 24th birthday.

Investigators believe the origin of last Friday's shooting spree was "domestic-related," Santa Monica Police spokesman Sergeant Richard Lewis said. He declined to elaborate.

Court documents obtained by Reuters suggest that Zawahri and his older brother, about a year apart in age, were caught in the middle of a stormy breakup of their parents' marriage while they were youngsters.

Police also cite an encounter they say the former Santa Monica College student had with law enforcement as a juvenile in which he was taken into custody and placed under a 72-hour "psychiatric hold" in 2006, when he would have been 16 or 17 years old.

California law allows police to involuntarily confine a person for at least 72 hours in the psychiatric unit of a hospital if that individual is deemed a danger to oneself or others or is "gravely disabled."

The incident seven years ago resulted in police being called to his family's home, where Friday's carnage began with the double-slaying of Zawahri's father and brother and a fire that consumed part of their house.

The rampage ended a few miles away with Zawahri shot to death by police inside the library at Santa Monica College, in the heart of the seaside town west of Los Angeles, after he killed three other people on the campus.

Zawahri's parents, who were divorced - Samir Zawahri, 55, and Randa Abdou - are natives of Lebanon who immigrated to the United States years ago and later became U.S. citizens. The gunman was born in the United States and grew up in California.

"There is no evidence in the case to indicate that the suspect was motivated by extremist ideology or that the suspect had any links to terror groups," FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said.

VIOLENCE APPEARS ROOTED IN FAMILY ISSUES

Court documents showed a turbulent home life. The mother claimed she was a victim of domestic violence in a petition for a temporary restraining order she filed against the father in 1998, months after the couple had separated.

A declaration accompanying her petition said the couple had long struggled with marital troubles, that her husband had been physically and verbally abusive, had threatened to kill her and take the children away to Canada, and had entered her apartment without permission.

A judge granted a restraining order requiring the father to keep away from his wife and children, but the matter appears to have been dropped a few weeks later when the two parties failed to show up in court.

The Los Angeles Times anonymously quoted a friend of the family as saying Zawahri had struggled with mental health problems and "had a fascination with guns" that worried those close to him. That could not immediately be confirmed by Reuters.

Zawahri had attended classes at Santa Monica College on a sporadic basis in 2009 and 2010, enrolling in "entertainment technology" courses related to video game design, animation and digital media, college spokesman Don Girard said.

The college has no record of behavioral issues or problems between Zawahri and other students and staff, Girard said.

Authorities believe the rampage started when Zawahri shot his father and older brother, Chris Zawahri, 25, and set fire to the family home, where Lewis said the gunman himself had been living. He then carjacked a woman and forced her at gunpoint to drive to Santa Monica College as he fired at passing traffic and a city bus, police said. She escaped unharmed.

At the college, he fatally shot two people in a car, college groundskeeper Carlos Franco, 68, and his daughter, Marcela Dia Franco, 26, who had just enrolled for summer classes at the school, police said.

He then gunned down another woman outside the campus library, traded shots with police and walked into the library firing away as students scurried for cover. The rampage ended when Zawahri was killed by police who pursued him into the library.

(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)

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