John. T. Ernest. Image from 10News broadcast

Murder, attempted murder and hate crime allegations were filed Monday against a young man who allegedly burst into a Poway synagogue on the last day of Passover and opened fire with an AR-15-style assault rifle, killing a woman and injuring three other people, including the rabbi of the congregation.

John T. Earnest, 19, of Rancho Penasquitos, is also charged with arson of a house of worship for allegedly trying to burn down an Escondido mosque last month. He allegedly took credit for setting the March 23 non-injury fire at the Islamic Center of Escondido in a nine-page manifesto posted online before Saturday’s synagogue shooting, which occurred exactly six months after a shooting rampage at a Pittsburgh synagogue that left 11 people dead.

The hate crime allegations filed in connection with the attack at Chabad of Poway make Earnest eligible for the death penalty, should prosecutors decide to pursue it.

Earnest, a nursing student at Cal State San Marcos, remains in custody without bail, pending his arraignment Tuesday afternoon in downtown San Diego.

“On behalf of the members of the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office, our hearts go out to the victims of the Chabad of Poway shooting,” District Attorney Summer Stephan said. “We offer our condolences for the loss of precious life and the violence that fell upon members of the Jewish congregation, gathered to celebrate the end of Passover.

“All of San Diego County law enforcement is working to investigate this crime,” the county’s top prosecutor said. “We do not tolerate attacks based on religion in San Diego County. Our specialized prosecutors and our victim advocates are working around the clock alongside Sheriff (Bill) Gore and partner agencies to ensure justice is carried out and that victims are provided support and know how to successfully navigate the criminal justice system.”

The gunfire erupted at 11:20 a.m. as about 100 people were celebrating the eight-day Jewish festival of Passover. Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60, died at the scene, and the three surviving victims, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, 57, Almog Peretz, 34, and his 8-year-old niece, Noya Dahan, were treated at hospitals and have since been released.

Goldstein said Kaye, a longtime member of the congregation that he founded in 1986, was at the temple with her physician husband and daughter to honor her mother, who recently died. He told reporters on Sunday that Kaye “took the bullet for all of us,” though he did not see her get shot and thus could not confirm the account of at least one person who said she purposely came between him and the shooter.

Goldstein lost his right index finger in the shooting and underwent surgery as medical personnel worked to save another of his digits.

Peretz was shot in the leg while shepherding children to safety. His niece was struck by shrapnel in her face and leg.

The shooter’s gun apparently malfunctioned sometime during the attack, according to San Diego County’s sheriff. An off-duty Border Patrol agent working as a security guard was inside the temple when the shooting began, and he opened fire as the suspect fled, Gore said. The agent did not strike Earnest, but did hit the suspect’s car, authorities said.

Police said Earnest called 911 a short time later and said he had been involved in the shooting. A San Diego police officer who had been en route to the synagogue spotted the suspect’s vehicle and pulled him over nearby, San Diego Police Department Chief David Nisleit said. Earnest got out of his vehicle with his hands up, and was taken into custody without further incident, Nisleit said.

Though he allegedly shouted anti-Semitic slurs during the rampage, Earnest is not believed to be part of an organized hate group, according to law enforcement officials.

“We believe he acted alone and without outside support in carrying out the attack,” a sheriff’s department statement says.

In the “open letter” that authorities allege he posted online shortly before the shooting, the author espouses flagrant anti-Semitic sentiments and a need to protect the “European race.” He wrote that he spent four weeks planning the attack, citing his “disgust” for Jews and a desire to kill them, and expressed admiration for the Australian white nationalist who attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, last month, killing 50 people.

The writer also claims credit for the March 23 fire set at the Dar-ul- Arqam Mosque, also known as Islamic Center of Escondido. The 3:15 a.m. was quickly extinguished by people inside the mosque. Graffiti left on the building made reference to the mosques attacks in Christchurch.

Earnest’s family issued a statement Monday saying they were “shocked and deeply saddened by the terrible attack on the Chabad of Poway synagogue. But our sadness pales in comparison to the grief and anguish our son has caused for so many innocent people. He has killed and injured the faithful who were gathered in a sacred place on a sacred day. To our great shame, he is now part of the history of evil that has been perpetrated on Jewish people for centuries.”

The family’s statement said Earnest’s apparent hateful attitudes had been “informed by people we do not know and ideas we do not hold.”

“Like our other five children, he was raised in a family, a faith and a community that all rejected hate and taught that love must be the motive for everything we do,” they stated. “How our son was attracted to such darkness is a terrifying mystery to us, though we are confident that law enforcement will uncover many details of the path that he took to this evil and despicable act.”

Updated at 4:35 p.m. April 29, 2019

— City News Service

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Chris Jennewein

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.