When Mark and Debbie Johnson’s band M Street took the stage at Cook’s Corner in rustic Trabuco Canyon on Wednesday night, the crowd was boisterous and happy.
The five-piece group are regulars on the Orange County cover-band circuit, playing a wide repertoire of classic-rock chestnuts at local venues like the House of Blues and yacht clubs around the Newport Beach area, where the Johnsons, married for 39 years, live. The couple’s guitar-playing next-door neighbor, Ed Means, joined the group six years ago.
While their musical careers have sometimes taken them to studios like L.A.’s Sunset Sound, backing artists from Eric Clapton to Alan Parsons, M Street is a proud cover act, regulars at Elks clubs and American Legion halls. They had performed at Cook’s Corner, a rowdy 90-year-old biker bar, before on its outdoor patio. This time, they were headlining on the indoor stage.
“There were a couple of birthday parties and all the regulars — you could tell people knew each other,” said Debbie Johnson, 63, one of the band’s singers.
“We had a lot friends come out; it was a perfect setup,” agreed Mark Johnson, 62, the band’s keyboardist.
M Street, with Means, drummer Brian Lynch and bassist Dave Stretch, were a few songs into their 7 p.m. set, midway through Fleetwood Mac’s “Rhiannon,” when they heard loud bangs across the venue. The band wears sound-muting in-ear monitors while performing, so they couldn’t immediately tell what the noises were.
“I thought it was a poorly conceived birthday gag,” Debbie Johnson said.
“Was it firecrackers, or balloons popping?” Mark Johnson remembered thinking onstage. “Then I saw the gunman stand forward, far enough where his gun was exposed in front of a speaker. Someone yelled ‘She’s been hit!’ and all hell broke loose.”
The gunman was John Snowling, a retired officer from the Ventura Police Department. He had come in search of his estranged wife, Marie Snowling, a regular at Cook’s. Snowling brought three handguns and a shotgun, Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said Thursday afternoon.
“This first person I saw him shoot was the birthday girl, at very close range,” Debbie Johnson said. “He kept moving and shooting. People were dropping to floor.”
The Johnsons were closer to a side of the stage where they could duck behind speakers, near a thick metal door that opened to the outdoor area. The rest of the band, however, were exposed in the middle of the stage.
“The shooter was within three feet of us,” Mark Johnson said. “He looked at the band, then pointed at them and took shots. He stepped out of the doorway and I thought he was done. But then I heard shooting outdoors, and I started trying to secure the door.”
Debbie Johnson scrambled across the stage, tending to her bandmates and audience members, “lying in pools of blood across the floor.” They found bassist Stretch, who told them “I think I’m grazed.” Then they saw guitarist Means by the drum set. “He was holding his stomach and not looking good,” Debbie said. “He showed me his arm, and I can see two holes in it.”
Mark Johnson found a bar patron who had a concealed weapon, and said they attempted to fire back at Snowling outside. “He’s still running around outside shooting, so we were trying to track him. I thought, ‘See if we can open the door to the parking lot and take some shots,’ but we got a barrage of bullets back at us. He had plenty of ammo.”
“I couldn’t even give you a number of shots he took,” Debbie Johnson said. “Fifty? More? The Cook’s staff were protecting the other side of the building closer to the kitchen. But we were truly fish in a barrel.”
Mark Johnson called 911. Law enforcement reportedly arrived within two minutes of the first emergency calls, and began firing on Snowling.
“The dispatcher said to stay low so they know you’re good guys,” Mark Johnson said.
Law enforcement sources told The Times that, minutes after arriving, sheriff’s deputies had pinned Snowling down beside a silver truck, where they shot and killed him.
“We can’t begin to describe the relief when we saw the sheriffs,” Mark Johnson said.
Snowling killed three people and injured six at Cook’s. The six injured, including Marie Snowling, were taken to Providence Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo on Wednesday night.
Two were in critical condition — a woman who was shot in the jaw and a man who was shot in the chest, according to James Chisum, a spokesman for the hospital. The woman was later transferred to UC Irvine Medical Center.
The four other victims, including M Street’s Stretch (shot in the hip) and Means (shot in his arm), were in stable condition but still hospitalized as of Thursday afternoon.
For Mark and Debbie Johnson, the Cook’s tragedy is their second brush with a mass shooting at a concert. One of Mark’s employees at his real-estate research firm was shot twice at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas in 2017, where 60 people died.
“Humans are resilient, but this is unique when you feel this vulnerable,” Debbie Johnson said.
The band’s equipment is still locked up at Cook’s, and likely will stay there throughout the investigation. Both Stretch and Means are expected to make a full recovery. The Johnsons expect the band to return to performing, eventually.
“I can’t imagine turning into hermits and not enjoying making music,” Debbie Johnson said. “As a band, we’re a family.”