John Earnest in court. Image from KPBS broadcast

A young man accused of opening fire inside a Poway synagogue on the last day of Passover with an AR-15-style assault rifle, killing a woman and injuring three other people, including the congregation’s rabbi, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to murder and attempted murder charges.

John T. Earnest, 19, of Rancho Penasquitos, stood stone-faced during much of the brief court hearing and said little. The not-guilty plea was entered on his behalf by a public defender. The only word Earnest uttered was “yes,” when asked if he agreed to a longer-than-usual delay before his next court hearing. That hearing was set for May 30.

Prosecutors allege Earnest entered the synagogue armed with a semi- automatic rifle and clad in a tactical vest carrying five 10-round magazines. He fired between eight to 10 rounds before the gun either jammed or malfunctioned, leading him to flee the scene in his car, according to prosecutors, who said Earnest legally purchased the rifle.

In addition to charges stemming from Saturday’s shooting, Earnest is also charged with arson of a house of worship for allegedly trying to burn down an Escondido mosque on March 24. He allegedly took responsibility for setting the non-injury fire at the Islamic Center of Escondido in a manifesto posted online before Saturday’s synagogue shooting.

The Poway shooting occurred exactly six months after a shooting rampage at a Pittsburgh synagogue, where 11 people were gunned down.

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.

District Attorney Summer Stephan said that in addition to the possible death penalty, Earnest faces another 103 years to life for the attempted murders and arson.

At an afternoon news conference, Stephan said hate crimes are on the rise and those who commit them will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

“While Saturday’s shooting devastated the heart of San Diego County, it has galvanized our spirit to stand against hate and to hold those who hate accountable,” Stephan said. “As prosecutors, we deal with violence on a daily basis. But when the target of violence is an entire religion, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, the victim pool becomes very large. It is everyone who practices that faith or belongs to that race or ethnicity, and that is why hate crimes are taken so seriously and California has some of the strictest hate crime laws in the country.”

The gunfire erupted at 11:20 a.m. Saturday as around 30 people were celebrating the eight-day Jewish festival of Passover.

Lori Gilbert Kaye, 60, was shot twice in the synagogue’s foyer and died at the scene. 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.”

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

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, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said. The agent did not strike Earnest, but did hit the suspect’s car, authorities said.

Police said Earnest called 911 at around 11:30 a.m. and said he had been involved in the shooting and was armed. A San Diego police officer who had been en route to the synagogue spotted the suspect’s vehicle and pulled him over at 17051 W. Bernardo Drive, less than two miles west of the synagogue, Deputy District Attorney Leonard Trinh said.

Earnest got out of his vehicle with his hands up, and was taken into custody without further incident, according to police.

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 court Tuesday, a prosecutor said the entire shooting inside the synagogue was captured by surveillance cameras.

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 responsibility for the March 24 fire set at the Dar-ul-Arqam Mosque, also known as Islamic Center of Escondido. The 3:15 a.m. fire 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.”

Funeral services for Kaye were held at the congregation Monday afternoon. Goldstein told the overflow crowd attending the service the shooting would not keep the congregation down.

“What we are going to take from this event is (that) it’s not going to knock us down,” he said. “It’s going to lift us up.”

Updated at 4:57 p.m., Tuesday, April 30, 2019

— City News Service

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