By Ken StoneAnn Buerster was filling up at a gas station Saturday near Phil’s BBQ off Rancho Bernardo Road when “all of a sudden I see cop cars” following a driver suspected in the Poway synagogue shooting.
“He gets out to run,” said Buerster, a 52-year-old Rancho Bernardo native. “I didn’t hear the shots, but I knew there were shots. And I was just panicked because I had my nieces in the car.”
The suspect, later identified as 19-year-old John T. Earnest of San Diego, was in a gray sedan headed west past the I-15 overpass, she said.
“No, he didn’t surrender,” she said, contradicting official accounts. “He started to [run] and then they got him.”
Buerster spoke to reporters awaiting a second afternoon news conference on the shootings inside the Chabad of Poway., She arrived after 4 p.m. to leave a wreath at the corner of Summerfield Lane and Espola Road, which becomes Rancho Bernardo Road a block west.
A paralegal, Buerster said her nieces — ages 4 and 16 — were “good.” The young one was at home, the teen waiting in the car.
She said she had a special connection to the Jewish house of worship, because her brother, Steven, used to assist the congregation in its former church quarters before moving to its current home.
Buerster said she told her nieces “this is crazy” because the suspected shooter was so young.
“I was trying to tell them that hate comes in all ages, sizes, color, genders,” she said. “It doesn’t stop at a certain profile. It’s everything. You don’t know who your neighbor is.”
Asked for more details on the arrest, she noted she wasn’t thinking of walking and taking pictures.
“I was fearing for my nieces’ safety,” she said. “I was more concerned about them than trying to focus on the suspect.”
The Rancho Penasquitos man — reportedly a student at CSU San Marcos whose father teaches at Mt. Carmel High School — surrendered to police after a 60-year-old woman was fatally shot and three others injured in an attack at Chabad of Poway on the last day of Passover.
Poway Mayor Steve Vaus told a brief news conference: “I want you to know — this is not Poway.”
The injured, who included a rabbi, a woman and a girl, were taken to Palomar Medical Center for treatment. They were listed in stable condition, but the girl was transferred to Rady Children’s Hospital in Kearny Mesa.
News reports said the slain woman was Lori Gilbert Kaye*, who was at the synagogue to say prayers for her mother who died six months ago.
Trauma surgeon Michael Katz told NBC San Diego the synagogue’s 57-year-old rabbi — Yisroel Goldstein — was among the victims. The rabbi suffered injuries to both index fingers and was likely to lose one, but may keep the other.
The girl and the other male victim, a 34-year-old, suffered shrapnel injuries, Katz told the news station. All should recover, he said.
The synagogue is near the border of Poway and San Diego, where nearby streets were closed off. Not far away, the Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church later held a candlelight interfaith vigil.
Sheriff Bill Gore said an off-duty Border Patrol officer was doing security inside the synagogue during the shooting and — after retrieving a weapon from his vehicle — took shots at the assailant outside as he fled the scene. But only the getaway vehicle was struck.
San Diego Police Chief Dave Nisleit said a police K9 officer overheard dispatches and headed to the scene, spotting the suspect’s car as the officer exited I-15 at Rancho Bernardo Road.
The white male suspect, whose rifle was seen on his front passenger seat, exited the car with his hands up, Nisleit said.
In an “open letter” posted online shortly before the shooting, an individual under Earnest’s name appears to take credit for both the synagogue shooting and a suspected arson fire at an Escondido mosque last month. The letter makes multiple anti-Semitic references and other racist comments.
Gore said authorities were working to verify the authenticity of the letter. Investigators couldn’t confirm if the alleged shooter is connected to any white supremacist groups.
The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department is leading the investigation, with the assistance of the FBI and the San Diego Police Department.
At a 7-minute press conference, Gore began by expressing condolences over the “senseless tragedy that visited Poway.”
FBI special agent in charge Omer Meisel, who helped with Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, told news crews that the FBI dispatched assets as soon as it learned of the incident.
Earnest has no prior arrests, the sheriff said. Gore also said deputies were serving warrants for Earnest’s home, his car and the synagogue.
Authorities believe Earnest to be the only suspect, and said there were no further known threats to religious gatherings.
“We encourage our communities to continue with scheduled events and other activities as normal,” the sheriff’s department said in a statement Saturday night. “The suspect in the Poway incident today has been captured and we believe he acted alone. Of course, if you have information about any potential threats, we want to hear from you. We have assigned deputies to religious centers throughout the weekend and will continue in our patrols and outreach moving forward.”
The shooting began shortly after 11:20 a.m., when the suspect burst into the Congregation Chabad synagogue armed with an AR-type assault rifle and opened fire as services were underway.
About 100 people were inside the temple at the time, Gore said.
The shooter’s gun apparently malfunctioned sometime during the attack, according to Gore.
Witnesses inside the house of worship were being interviewed by homicide detectives and had not been released as of 5 p.m.
Gore said a family reunification and counseling center was set up at Poway High School at 15500 Espola Road by a sheriff’s trauma unit and the Anti-Defamation League.
Chris Folts, who lives near the synagogue and was outside doing yard work, said he heard six or seven shots, yelling, another series of six shots, and then silence. He said he immediately went inside and called 911.
Vaus told national media the congregation was targeted by “someone with hate in their heart … towards our Jewish community and that just will not stand.”
He said people in the congregation engaged the shooter, preventing a worse tragedy.
Hate has no place in ANY community… least of all Poway. We will put our arms around each other and walk through this tragedy as the family we have always been and always will be. #PowayStrong
— Steve Vaus (@SteveVaus) April 27, 2019
President Trump also offered condolences.
Thoughts and prayers to all of those affected by the shooting at the Synagogue in Poway, California. God bless you all. Suspect apprehended. Law enforcement did outstanding job. Thank you!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 27, 2019
In addition to being the last day of Passover, Saturday was the six-month anniversary of a shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, in which 11 people were killed.
Rep. Scott Peters, whose 52nd Congressional District includes Poway, arrived for a second press conference after being contacted by Jason Bercovitch, his field representative to the Jewish community.
Peters said he was on an East County hike when he got the news. He said he was hoping for the best — “then we heard somebody died. It’s just surreal, terrible and tragic what happened. We feel a little helpless.”
In January 2016, Peters used his iPhone to break a GOP-ordered House blackout and live-stream a Democratic sit-in over gun control.
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“We know law enforcement really works well together here,” he said outside the Summerfield residential area. “They do the best they can to intercept these things and stop them. But sometimes these crazy people get through.”
Peters said he’ll return to Washington on Monday.“We finally made a little progress on gun safety in Congress, but not nearly enough,” he said. “It’s very heartbreaking in a lot of ways.”
In his initial remarks, Poway Mayor Vaus said: “The Poway I know comes together as we did just a few weeks ago, at an interfaith event. We always walk with our arms around each other, and we will walk through this tragedy with our arms around each other.
“We have deep appreciation for those who showed courage at the Chabad, deep appreciation for the law enforcement agencies that responded so quickly. … Poway will stay strong, and we will always be a community that cares for one another.”
*Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Lori Kaye’s name.
Updated at 11:10 a.m. April 29, 2019. Chris Jennewein and City News Service contributed to this report.
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