EL CAJON, Calif. -
A Ramona man Thursday pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to charges that he beat his 94-year-old neighbor to death with a hammer after she let him spend the night in her mobile home.
A Feb. 26 trial date was set for Gary Allen Thomas, who faces 26 years to life in state prison if convicted of murder in the death of Mary Jean Eskridge.
If Thomas is found guilty, a second phase of trial would follow in which the defense would have to prove that the defendant was insane at the time of the killing.
At Thomas' arraignment in May, prosecutor David Williams III said the victim believed the 63-year-old 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.
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 alleged.
Eskridge was a long-standing resident of the Ramona Terrace Estates mobile home park, and Thomas' attorney said her client 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. on 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 alleged.
Eskridge, a professional dancer in the big band era, was the longtime owner of Jean's Dance Studio in Spring Valley. The studio is now run by her daughter. The victim also had three sons.