SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The father who fatally shot his three daughters and a man at a California church this week repeatedly threatened to kill his estranged girlfriend and scared their girls so much they cried and one bit off her fingernails, according to a restraining order that was supposed to keep him away from guns and bullets.
But 39-year-old David Mora had both when he showed up Monday for a supervised visit with his daughters, ages 13, 10 and 9. He shot them, the chaperone he and his ex-girlfriend had agreed could oversee the weekly visits, and then himself.
The violence at The Church in Sacramento, a nondenominational Christian place of worship, raised troubling questions: How did Mora get a gun? Should his arrest a week earlier on felony charges have prompted postponement of his visitation? And what pushed him over the edge to commit such a heinous act two days before his middle daughter turned 11?
The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Office has said little publicly about what investigators have learned. “We are not disclosing the type of weapon at this time. How he came to possess a firearm will be part of the investigation,” Sgt. Rodney Grassmann said in a text message Wednesday.
Mora’s five-year restraining order barred him from possessing firearms, and on a court document he submitted he denied having any. Moreover, his ex-girlfriend, who had lived with him and their daughters, didn’t believe he had any firearms and so didn’t seek what’s known as a “red flag” restraining order.
Imposing such an order puts the person’s name into databases that are checked when someone tries to purchase a weapon. That kind of order stopped a former University of California, Los Angeles lecturer from buying a handgun in Colorado last fall. Matthew Harris was arrested last month after making violent threats that prompted UCLA officials to cancel on-campus instruction for a day.
Faith Whitmore, chief executive of the Sacramento Regional Family Justice Center that provides services to victims of domestic abuse, said a case manager and an attorney who worked with Mora’s estranged girlfriend last April had no indication Mora had a gun and so there was no reason to seek the “red flag” order.
“At the time that she submitted the petition for the restraining order, she had checked that he did not have a weapon,” Whitmore said. “He may or may not have had it, but she was not aware of it.”
A five-year restraining order is the most significant of its type and underscores the threat he posed, Whitmore said. In her petition for the restraining order, the woman said he repeatedly threatened to kill her.
“Three years is sort of normal, or less. Five years means she (the court commissioner who issued the restraining order) is taking it very, very seriously,” Whitmore said.
With no indication that Mora had a weapon, there would be no reason for a firearms removal hearing, said Julianna Lee, a supervising attorney who oversees domestic violence and family law cases at the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. A hearing can lead to a search of a person’s home.
Many weapons are purchased illegally and so-called “ghost guns” that contain no registration number can be made at home. In those cases, the owner wouldn’t show up in a database that only tracks legal purchases.
Other family law experts said it’s unlikely as a practical matter that Mora’s arrest last week on charges including assaulting a police officer could have been used to prevent his court-ordered supervised visitation with his daughters.
There is no formal process for police to notify his estranged girlfriend. And had she learned of it informally, she would have had to contact a lawyer to ask a judge to modify the visitation order on an emergency basis— all in less than a week.
“It’s every family law attorney’s worst nightmare,” said Betty Nordwind, executive director of the Harriett Buhai Center of Family Law in Los Angeles.
Kelly Alison Behre, director of the University of California, Davis School of Law’s Family Protection & Legal Assistance Clinic, agreed with the difficulty in seeking such a change.
She noted that judges generally favor keeping some sort of contact between parents and their children, yet in the most tragic cases “court-ordered visitation with an abusive party provides the abusive party with a tool to further harm his victim through their children.”
Mora’s restraining order and his arrest last week in Merced County would routinely have been entered into a law enforcement database, said Lee. She said the shooting less than a week later shows the lingering lack of communication despite legislators’ efforts to close such gaps with a new law.
The shooting prompted promises from California state lawmakers to look for gaps in what advocates say are already the nation’s strictest gun regulations.
“How did this happen? Is there a loophole in law that we need to correct?” Democratic Assemblyman Mike Gipson asked.
“The legal system failed. We need to do better,” Democratic state Sen. Susan Rubio said.
Rubio noted that lawmakers tightened visitation requirements and the state’s domestic violence law last year. But she said the slayings show “we have more work to do. Law enforcement, judges, advocates and legislators need to work together to close the gaps in the legal system.”
Research by the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety found that a current or former intimate partner or family member was among victims in at least 53% of shootings that killed four or more people in the United States from 2009 to 2020. The deaths of nearly three in four children killed in mass shootings were related to domestic violence.
Lisa Henry, a volunteer leader with the affiliated California Moms Demand Action, which supports gun restrictions, said the slayings are “a tragic reminder of the importance of disarming domestic abusers.”
Dazio reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press News Researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed.