Breaking News Emails
Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
By Dennis Romero, Andrew Blankstein and Phil Helsel
SAN DIEGO — One person died Saturday when a man walked into a Chabad synagogue in a San Diego suburb and began shooting people inside.
Three others were injured, and the suspect, John T. Earnest, 19, of San Diego, was in custody, authorities said.
“This individual was with an AR-type assault weapon and opened fire on the people inside the synagogue,” said San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said.
An off-duty Border Patrol agent in the area fired at the suspect as he fled the Chabad of Poway and struck his car, Gore and San Diego Police Chief David Nislei said at a news conference.
Nislei said a San Diego police officer was en route to the scene and he “overheard CHP scanner of a suspect who had called in to CHP to report that he was just involved in this shooting and his location,” referring to the California Highway Patrol.
The officer exited the freeway and “clearly saw the suspect in his vehicle, the suspect pulled over, jumped out of his car with his hands up and was immediately taken into custody. As the suspect was being placed in custody, police “clearly saw a rifle sitting on the front passenger seat,” Nislei said.
Sheriff’s detectives and FBI investigators were examining a possible link between the suspect and a March 24 arson fire at a mosque in Escondido, a city just north of Poway. Authorities said graffiti left at the scene of the blaze referenced the March 15 attack in New Zealand that killed 50 Muslim worshippers.
“We’re currently working with the Escondido Police Department and the FBI to determine Earnest’s possible involvement in the arson at the mosque in Escondido about a month ago,” Gore told reporters.
Four people who were shot were transported to hospitals and one of those, who Gore identified only as an older woman, died. A female juvenile and two adult men were at a hospital and were stable, he said. He called the shooting a “senseless act of tragedy.”
Michael Katz, a trauma surgeon at Palomar Medical Center, described the victims as a 60-year-old woman who died, a rabbi who would likely lose a finger because of a “defensive wound,” the juvenile and a 34-year-old man.
Gore would not release details of the suspect or a possible motive, saying he is being interviewed by the police and the FBI. Poway Mayor Steve Vaus said in a phone interview with MSNBC that “it was a hate crime, and that will not stand.”
San Diego Sheriff’s Sgt. Aaron Meleen said earlier that deputies were called on an “active shooter situation” and that “we’re confident that there are no shooters that are outstanding.”
Vaus said in a phone interview with MSNBC that the rabbi was shot in the hand, and he suggested that members of the congregation took action to confront the shooter.
“We are grateful to those in the congregation there that engaged the shooter and prevented this from being a much more horrific incident,” Vaus said.
Chabad of Poway had advertised an 11:00 a.m. “Passover Holiday Celebration” online. Saturday is the traditional weekly day of Jewish Sabbath. This Saturday is also the final day of Passover, a week-long holiday marking the deliverance of the Jewish people from slavery in ancient Egypt.
A neighbor whose backyard is across the street from the synagogue, Donny Phonea, 38, said that he heard three or four shots and some yelling.
“I peeked across from my backyard, and people were hiding behind a transistor box,” Phonea said. “I knew something was wrong. I had a sense this was probably hate related.”
President Donald Trump spoke to reporters on the White House South Lawn before departing for Wisconsin, saying, “My deepest sympathies go to the people that were affected, their families, their loved ones.”
“Obviously it looks right now, based on my last conversations, it looks like a hate crime,” Trump said. Poway’s mayor tweeted that Trump called him from Air Force One and offered assistance.
The Chabad synagogue serves as a community center for ultra-Orthodox Jews, and Chabads in general are known for reaching out to non-Orthodox Jews to encourage them to partake in Jewish life and join some celebrations.
Minoo Anvari said one of the people shot was her friend, and that her husband called her after the shooting.
“My husband said ‘she’s down’ and they tried to stop the bleeding but immediately they had to take her to hospital,” Anvari said.
Meleen, the sheriff’s sergeant, said earlier Saturday that when deputies arrived there were reports that two children were unaccounted for, but those children were found safe and reunited with their parents.
“As you can imagine, it was an extremely chaotic scene with people running everywhere when we got here,” Meleen said.
Poway is a city of around 50,000 north of San Diego.
“I want you to know, this is not Poway. The Poway that I know comes together just as we did a few weeks ago, in an inter-faith event,” Vaus said at a news conference. “We always walk with our arms around each other, and we will walk through this tragedy with our arms around each other.”
Law enforcement in other cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, said they were closely monitoring the situation.
“At this time there’s no nexus to Los Angeles, but in an abundance of caution, we will conduct high visibility patrols around synagogues & other houses of worship,” the LAPD tweeted.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington said it is “is shocked and alarmed at the second armed attack on a synagogue in the United States in six months.”
“Now our thoughts are with the victims and their loved ones,” Museum Director Sara J. Bloomfield said in a statement.
“But moving forward this must serve as yet another wake-up call that antisemitism is a growing and deadly menace,” she said. “The Holocaust is a reminder of the dangers of unchecked antisemitism and the way hate can infect a society. All Americans must unequivocally condemn it and confront it in wherever it appears.”