Defendant John Earnest grinned during testimony by witness Oscar Stewart.
Defendant John Earnest grinned during testimony by witness Oscar Stewart. Pool photo

A young man who carried out a hate-motivated shooting at the Chabad of Poway that killed one woman and injured three other people was sentenced Thursday to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

John Timothy Earnest, 22, pleaded guilty in San Diego Superior Court to murder and attempted murder charges for the April 27, 2019, shooting. He also pleaded guilty to an arson charge for setting fire to the Dar-ul-Arqam Mosque in Escondido on March 24, 2019.

In addition to life without parole, Earnest also received 137 years to life in prison, as set forth in the plea deal reached earlier this year.

Earnest additionally pleaded guilty earlier this month to 113 federal charges stemming from the shooting and mosque fire. On Dec. 28, he will be sentenced in that case, in which federal prosecutors and Earnest are jointly seeking a prison term of life in prison, plus 30 years.

State prosecutors announced last year that they would seek the death penalty against Earnest, but due to a proposed plea deal in the federal prosecution, which takes supremacy over state prosecutions, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office would have been prevented from seeing their own prosecution through had the case not been resolved.

San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said the sentence “brings about a semblance of justice,” though she said her office did feel capital punishment was the right course of action.

However, the county’s top prosecutor said that with Earnest waiving his appellate rights and an expected life sentence in his federal case, the life without parole plea offer was accepted following discussions with the victims’ families.

Women walking away from Chabad of Poway on Espola Road hug. Photo by Chris Stone

The former Rancho Penasquitos resident and Cal State San Marcos nursing student carried out the shooting on the last day of Passover, fatally wounding 60-year-old Lori Gilbert Kaye, who was shot twice in the synagogue’s foyer. Kaye, a longtime member of Chabad of Poway, was at the temple with her husband and daughter to honor her mother, who had recently died.

The congregation’s rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein, lost a finger in the shooting. Two other people – Almog Peretz and his then-8-year-old niece, Noya Dahan – were also injured.

Prosecutors said 54 people were inside the synagogue when Earnest opened fire.

In an online open letter discovered shortly before the shooting, Earnest espoused flagrant anti-Semitic sentiments, a need to protect the “European race,” and wrote, “I can only kill so many Jews” and “I only wish I killed more.”

During Earnest’s lengthy sentencing hearing, San Diego Superior Court Judge Peter Deddeh denied Earnest the opportunity to make a statement in open court, saying he didn’t want the hearing to become “a political forum for him to start making white supremacist or racist statements” and that he didn’t want Earnest “to use this as a platform to add to his celebrity.”

Though defendants can make statements to potentially mitigate their sentences, Deddeh ruled such a statement would be irrelevant due to the agreed-upon life without parole sentence.

Kaye’s family members and other Chabad of Poway congregants present during the shooting shared the terror they felt when the gunfire rang out, which they said just added to the many chapters of anti-Semitic hate throughout human history.

Kaye’s 24-year-old daughter, Hannah Kaye, recounted driving down to San Diego from college for Passover, and spending what she could not have imagined would be the last days she would ever see her mother.

She called white supremacy “an epidemic that thrives all over this country and overseas” and said a part of her “grieves” for Earnest due to his descent into racist ideologies.

San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore pauses during a press conference outside Chabad of Poway. Photo by Chris Stone

“What has your racist, entitled rage offered you in the end? How have your actions of murdering my mother because she was a Jew benefited your life and brought you closer to your God?” she asked him.

She and others described Lori Kaye as a caring, giving and charitable person.

Dr. Howard Kaye, who unsuccessfully tried to revive his wife just after she’d been shot, said his wife of 32 years was “a superior person and a wonderful woman.”

Lori Kaye’s sister, Ellen Edwards, asked Earnest, “How could you kill my beautiful, loving sister? You are an animal. You deserve to be locked up forever.”

Deputy District Attorney Leonard Trinh, who prosecuted the case and leads the office’s Hate Crimes prosecution unit, said Earnest “represents the worst of humanity” and described him as “evil, hateful, heartless, resentful and entitled.”

Following the hearing, Stephan said anti-Semitism accounts of 20% of California’s hate crimes, and urged members of the public to report instances of hate speech whenever it is seen or encountered.

The District Attorney said expressions of hate speech are often a precursor to acts of racist violence, as was the case in the Chabad shooting.

“To come in, in the name of hate, and take out the life of a defenseless, unarmed woman and to try to kill an 8-year-old child is the definition of being a coward,” Stephan said

Prosecutors said members of the Dar-ul-Arqam Mosque were informed of the sentencing hearing, but declined to attend.

Earnest pleaded guilty in both the state and federal cases to setting fire to the Dar-ul-Arqam Mosque. According to the federal plea agreement, seven missionaries were asleep inside the mosque at the time, but were able to extinguish the flames and escape injury.

In addition to state and federal prosecutions, the shooting triggered a series of lawsuits from the victims of the shooting against Earnest, the Chabad itself, the gun store that sold Earnest the weapon and gun manufacturers.

Updated 3:10 p.m. Sept. 30, 2021