EL CAJON, Calif. — A Ramona man who beat his 94-year-old neighbor to death with a hammer after she let him spend the night in her mobile home pleaded guilty Monday to first-degree murder.
Gary Allen Thomas, 64, admitted his guilt on the day his trial was supposed to start at the El Cajon courthouse. He will be sentenced to 26 years to life behind bars for killing Mary Jean Eskridge, the longtime owner of a dance studio in Spring Valley.
Judge Allan Preckel told the defendant, who will be formally sentenced on June 26, that he would most likely die in prison. Thomas will not be eligible for parole until he’s 90, said Deputy District Attorney David Williams III.
The prosecutor said Thomas killed Eskridge — a professional dancer in the big band era and dance teacher to many — by hitting her eight times in the head with a hammer as she slept.
Thomas initially pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity but withdrew his plea Friday and entered a new plea of not guilty, then changed course and admitted guilt.
Two court-appointed doctors found that the defendant was not legally insane at the time of the murder, according to the prosecutor.
At Thomas’ arraignment last year, the prosecutor said the victim — a beloved member of the East County community — believed the defendant was a trusted friend and allowed him to spend the night in the guest bedroom of her mobile home the night of April 30, 2012.
The next morning, Thomas grabbed a hammer out of a toolbox in the victim’s kitchen, proceeded down the hall and, for reasons unknown, beat Eskridge to death as she slept, the prosecutor said.
Eskridge was a long-standing resident of the Ramona Terrace Estates mobile home park, and Thomas’ attorney said the defendant had lived there for about six years.
Eskridge, who was still active in church and senior center activities, was found in a bedroom of her mobile home about 11:30 a.m. May 1 by paramedics responding to an activated medical alert bracelet.
Thomas was arrested the next day. In an interview with police, the defendant admitted beating the victim with a hammer in her home, Williams said.