Defendant John Earnest grinned during testimony by witness Oscar Stewart.
Defendant John Earnest grinned during testimony by witness Oscar Stewart. Pool photo by John Gibbins of The San Diego Union-Tribune

Chabad of Poway takes pride in welcoming all Jews. Indeed, on the last day of Passover, one of its front doors was propped open by a pottery planter.

But when a gunman raced up the steps to the synagogue that April morning, he began shooting through that open door. Rounds from his recently purchased Smith & Wesson AR-15 entered the lobby before he did.

Surveillance video screened in court Thursday showed Lori Gilbert Kaye, 60, being killed — and an Army combat veteran chasing the shooter out of the synagogue, perhaps saving dozens of lives.

John T. Earnest gestures in courtroom after viewing video showing him gunning down Lori Kaye. Image via pool video

About 50 spectators in the 10th-floor downtown courtroom kept their composure, but at break in the hallway Kaye sisters Ellen Edwards and Randi Grossman clutched each other in tears.

They had never before seen the nearly 4-minute video.

John Timothy Earnest, 20, had a different reaction Thursday. After seeing the video during his preliminary hearing, the shooting suspect turned toward spectators in Judge Peter Deddeh’s court and flashed a “hang-loose” gesture.

He smirked several times. And once — when a witness said Earnest “freaked out” while being cursed and threatened — he broke into a smile. But the former CSU San Marcos nursing student otherwise sat emotionless.

Seven police and civilian witnesses gave damning testimony at a hearing to decide whether Earnest will stand trial for murder and other crimes. Deddeh could rule sometime after 9 a.m. Friday, when a last witness, a wounded congregant who requires a translator, testifies at the new San Diego Central Courthouse.

Evidence of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim beliefs was shared Thursday through Earnest’s own words and writing.

He told police he committed the shooting because the Jewish people were victimizing the white race, according to a 12-minute 911 recording played in court.

“They’re destroying our people. I’m trying to show them that we’re not going to go down without a fight,” Earnest was heard telling a dispatcher minutes after the April 27 shooting. “I’m defending my nation against the Jewish people, who are trying to destroy all white people.”

Earnest also is charged with arson for the March 24 blaze at the Dar-ul-Arqam Mosque, also known as the Islamic Center of Escondido. The fire was set nine days after a suspected white supremacist named Brenton Tarrant allegedly killed 51 people at two New Zealand mosques.

Although an open letter tied to Earnest noted Tarrant, an Escondido police detective revealed in court that the phrase “For Brent Tarrant t./pol/” was spray-painted over several parking spaces near a scorched mosque wall.

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After photos were taken, said 28-year veteran officer William Havens, public works removed the markings.

Police didn’t want to give the New Zealand suspect or the Escondido defacer any more press, he said. Removal also aimed to “avoid any more terror than the community already” was feeling. The phrase was left out of press releases as well.

Havens said surveillance cameras at nearby businesses showed a 2012 to 2015 Honda Civic driven by the arsonist. A month later, a gray 2012 Honda Civic was driven by Earnest.

He barely escaped being shot himself as he fled Chabad of Poway.

Congregant Oscar Stewart — a Gulf War and Iraq combat veteran — testified how he heard the shots, briefly considered warning children in the synagogue playground, then turned and rushed the shooter.

Stewart said he saw two muzzle flashes. But while running toward the shooter, he repeatedly shouted: “I’m going to kill you!” He also said he used a profanity, later identified as “mother—.”

“I tried to throw him off,” said the 51-year-old electrician. “Trying to disrupt his train of thought.”

Earnest got into his car, and Stewart followed, punching the side of the Honda, he said. But another congregant, off-duty Border Patrol agent Jonathan Morales, yelled “Fall back” to Stewart.

Morales (who didn’t testify) began shooting as the Honda made a wild U-turn on Chabad Way and headed to Rancho Bernardo Road. One bullet was recovered from the car. It lodged in an area above the driver’s head.

At some point, heading west toward Interstate 15, Earnest phoned 911. Prosecutors Leonard Trinh and David Grapilon played a tape of the exchange — first with a Highway Patrol dispatcher and then with the Sheriff’s Department.

“I just shot up a synagogue,” Earnest is heard saying. “I’m defending my country.”

He said he thought he had killed some people at Chabad of Poway. Throughout the call, Earnest calmly described what he was wearing, his promise not to use his weapon and where he was parked.

Frustrated at having to explain again and again his location (near a Union 76 station and Phil’s BBQ near the I-15 overpass), Earnest told 911: “Man, you guys take a long-ass time.” He complained of “being here a long-ass time.”

And he added: “Jesus Christ, you guys suck at your job.”

Finally, at 11:36 a.m. that Saturday, San Diego police K-9 unit Officer Jonathan Wiese reached Earnest after hitting 130 mph in light traffic from Mission Valley.

Wiese testified that he arrested Earnest without incident — not needing to deploy Gucci, his German shepherd. But he described this exchange:

Earnest: “How’s your day going?”

Wiese: “It’s going pretty shitty.”

Earnest: “I thought you wanted to see action.”

While patting down Earnest, who wore a vest meant for ammunition, the suspect told Wiese, who is white: “Do you know what the Jews have done to our race?”

Earlier, Chief Deputy Medical Examiner Steven Campman described photos showing Kaye’s gunshot wounds and their extensive damage. Two bullets struck — one below her rear right shoulder (which never came out) and a second in her right upper buttock, which exited and struck her left forearm.

Both shots were fatal, causing rapid blood loss, he said.

Stewart told how he returned to the house of worship to check for his wife. He came across wounded Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, whose bloody hands were wrapped in a prayer shawl. The rabbi said: “I’m fine, I’m fine,” Stewart testified,

Aided by another congregant, Stewart began doing CPR on Kaye. Stewart did the breathing while another man did chest compression. Soon Kaye’s physician husband, Howard, came to help as Stewart fetched an AED defibrillator.

But the device wouldn’t work without a pulse, Stewart said. In checking for a heartbeat, Howard Kaye realized the victim was his wife.

“He let out a groan and fainted,” Stewart said, adding that sheriff’s deputies arrived just about that time to take over.

After a long lunch break, testimony resumed with a crime scene investigator named Doree Racicot, a civilian with the Sheriff’s Department. She told of recovering the rifle, a tactical helmet, a GoPro camera (never turned on) and five ammo magazines with 10 bullets each.

The court was shown a $963.41 receipt from San Diego Guns in Mission Gorge, where Earnest had bought the M&P15 assault-style rifle for $729.99. Also shown was a hunting license valid from July 1, 2019, to June 30, 2020.

Sheriff’s homicide Detective Brian Simpson told of searching Earnest’s home on a Rancho Peñasquitos cul-de-sac. He found numerous items belonging to Earnest in a room with a bunk bed shared with a brother. They included a camouflage wallet, Mt. Carmel High School ID cards, a Cal State San Marcos student ID and nursing and medical texts.

A card showed Earnest had completed a state Department of Fish and Wildlife Fish program for hunters. (But the hunting license — which would allow someone in California under 21 to buy a gun — was not valid until July 1.)

A black Acer Espire laptop was found on the top bunk — where the sleeper could gaze at stars affixed to the ceiling.

Also recovered: “one small teddy bear.”

The hard drive was removed from the laptop, said the next witness — FBI computer forensics examiner Mark Gonyea. It contained raw videos posted by the New Zealand shooter and evidence of 8chan postings, the online board known for racist and anti-Jewish speech.

In a folder called “Stuff,” Gonyea found another folder: “It’s time.” That included a 12-page sans serif Microsoft Word document — an “open letter” with a variety of anti-Semitic references created April 5, 2019, and last modified two days before the Poway shooting.

It began: “My name is John Earnest.”

The author 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.

Earnest allegedly admitted to both the shooting and the mosque fire in the letter, also posted online, in which he espouses a need to protect the “European race.”

The writer also claimed responsibility for the March 24 blaze, which was quickly extinguished by people inside the mosque.

Judge Deddeh — son of the late state lawmaker Wadie Deddeh with Iraqi ancestry — is expected to rule Friday whether Earnest will stand trial on the charges, which include a special circumstance hate crime allegation that could lead to the death penalty.

The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office has not yet decided whether to pursue capital punishment, but a tall man in courtroom spectator seats behind Earnest was identified as a federal public defender, who might get involved in such a case.

Earnest, who’s being held without bail, also is accused of shooting two other people besides Kaye and the rabbi — Almog Peretz, 34, and his 8-year-old niece, Noya Dahan.

The compilation of indoor and outdoor surveillance videos contained a haunting image besides Earnest.

Seconds before the shooter stormed the synagogue, the silent clip showed a young woman with long dark hair coming outside, looking around a bit and returning to the synagogue.

It was Oscar Stewart’s stepdaughter.

— City News Service contributed to this report.

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