A 20-year-old nursing student accused of opening fire at a Poway synagogue, killing one congregant and injuring several others, was ordered Friday to stand trial on murder, attempted murder and other charges.
Presiding Judge Peter C. Deddeh ruled that enough evidence was presented by prosecutors to hold John T. Earnest to answer to the charges stemming from the April 27 shooting at Chabad of Poway, as well as an arson count stemming from a March 24 blaze at the Dar-ul-Arqam Mosque, also known as the Islamic Center of Escondido.
The charges include a special circumstance hate crime allegation that could lead to the death penalty. The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office has yet to decide whether to pursue capital punishment against the Rancho Penasquitos resident, who’s being held without bail and is due back in court on Oct. 3 for arraignment.
Earnest also faces more than 100 hate crime-related counts filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and could also face the death penalty in the federal case.
The Cal State San Marcos student is accused of carrying out the shooting on the last day of Passover, killing 60-year-old Lori Gilbert Kaye, who was shot twice in the synagogue’s foyer and died at a hospital. Kaye, a longtime member of Chabad of Poway, was at the temple with her husband and daughter the day of the shooting to honor her mother, who had recently died.
The congregation’s rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein, 57, lost a finger in the shooting. Two other people — Almog Peretz, 34, and his 8-year-old niece, Noya Dahan — were also injured.
In court Thursday, the judge heard a recording of a 911 call Earnest made minutes after fleeing the scene of the synagogue shooting. On the call, he tells a dispatcher he committed the shooting because Jewish people were destroying the white race.
“They’re destroying our people. I’m trying to show them that we’re not going to go down without a fight,” Earnest is heard saying on the recording. “… I’m defending my nation against the Jewish people, who are trying to destroy all white people.”
Earnest told a dispatcher he was armed but would not use his weapon on officers.
Peretz, who was the last witness to take the stand, testified this morning that he heard a loud boom, which he initially thought might have been glass falling from the ceiling or something else falling over.
Speaking through a Hebrew interpreter, he said he took a few steps toward the sound, saw Earnest, then grabbed his friend’s young daughter in one arm and his niece with his other hand.
Peretz said he ran through the back exit into the playground area of the synagogue, and only noticed that he and his niece were injured — he sustained a gunshot wound to the back of his right leg, while Noya was struck by shrapnel in her face and leg — after getting the children to a safe place.
Another congregant, Oscar Stewart, testified on Thursday he was at the synagogue that morning with his wife and stepdaughter.
“It was chaos,” Stewart said, describing the scene after four shots rang out from the lobby, sending congregants screaming and fleeing toward the exits.
Stewart said he ran toward the gunshots and saw Earnest firing, then apparently running out of ammo and stopping to reload.
Having previously served in the Navy and Army — including two tours in Iraq — Stewart said he rushed at the shooter and yelled that he was going to kill him in an effort to distract the assailant. Earnest then fled out the front doors, with Stewart and several other congregants in tow, the witness said
Jonathan Morales, an off-duty Border Patrol agent working as a security guard, told Stewart to fall back because he was armed. Morales fired four to five shots at Earnest’s Honda Civic — striking the car once — as the defendant quickly made a U-turn on Chabad Way and sped off.
Stewart testified that he returned to the synagogue after Earnest fled and began performing CPR on Kaye, who was face-down in the lobby. Her husband, Dr. Howard Kaye, assisted in the medical efforts, but did not initially realize the wounded woman was his wife, Stewart said. When the physician did recognize it was his spouse, he “let out a groan, then he fainted,” Stewart said.
San Diego police Officer Jonathan Wiese testified that he arrested Earnest, who was inside his stopped car on West Bernardo Drive.
He said Earnest exited the car, then asked him, “How’s your day going?” and later asked the officer if he knew “what the Jews have done to our race?”
According to testimony, a receipt found in Earnest’s car showed he purchased the rifle at San Diego Guns on April 13, the same day a California Fish and Wildlife card found in his bedroom showed he completed a hunting program, qualifying him for a hunting license. However, the license — which would allow someone in California under 21 to purchase a gun — was not valid until July 1.
Earnest allegedly admitted to both the shooting and the mosque fire in an online open letter in which he espoused flagrant anti-Semitic sentiments and a need to protect the “European race.”
In the “open letter” that authorities say Earnest posted online shortly before the shooting, 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, New Zealand, in March, killing 50 people.
The writer also claimed responsibility for the March 24 blaze, which was quickly extinguished by people inside the mosque. Graffiti left in the mosque’s parking lot paid tribute to the Christchurch shooter.
Surveillance footage allegedly captured a suspect arriving at the mosque in the same type of vehicle in which Earnest was captured on the day of the synagogue shooting.
Updated at 11:40 a.m. Sept. 20, 2019
–City News Service