Man sentenced for killing elderly neighbor with hammer

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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 was sentenced Wednesday to 26 years to life in prison.

Gary Allen Thomas, 64, pleaded guilty in April to first-degree murder in the death of Mary Jean Eskridge, the longtime owner of a dance studio in Spring Valley.

“The defendant murdered a helpless 94-year-old woman in her sleep with a claw hammer,” said Deputy District Attorney David Williams III. “For this act of appalling evil, the defendant truly deserves to spend the rest of his life in prison.”

The defendant will not be eligible for parole until he’s 90, the prosecutor said.

Thomas initially pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity but withdrew his plea 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 professional dancer in the big band era — 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, striking her eight times in the head, the prosecutor said.

Eskridge 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.

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