Breaking News Emails
Get breaking news alerts and special reports. The news and stories that matter, delivered weekday mornings.
By Phil Helsel
A San Diego man accused of opening fire on a synagogue, killing one person and wounding others in what prosecutors are calling a hate crime, had magazines with an extra 50 rounds of ammunition when he was arrested, prosecutors said Tuesday.
John T. Earnest, 19, appeared in court Tuesday. He is charged with one count of murder and three counts of attempted murder in the attack on the Chabad synagogue in Poway, California, that occurred Saturday morning on the last day of Passover.
A public defender entered not guilty pleas on Earnest’s behalf and he was ordered held without bail.
A prosecutor said in court that Earnest entered the synagogue with a semiautomatic rifle and five extra 10-round magazines of ammunition in a tactical vest and opened fire. He allegedly fired between eight to 10 shots before the weapon appeared to jam or malfunction.
Earnest could face the death penalty if convicted because of the hate crime circumstances added to the charges, but a decision on whether or not to seek it has not yet been made.
“We support religious freedom and we must defend it with everything that we have, and we’re dedicated to delivering justice in this case,” San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan said at a news conference after Tuesday’s court appearance.
“Hate won’t be tolerated in our neighborhoods,” she said. “Anyone who commits a heinous act like we saw this past weekend will be held accountable.”
Earnest encountered Lori Gilbert Kaye, 60, who was there to pray for her deceased mother, in a foyer and shot her twice as she turned to flee, killing her. Earnest then shot the rabbi before turning his weapon toward one of the rooms and opening fire, wounding two people, including an 8-year-old girl who was struck by bullet shrapnel, a prosecutor said.
“The evidence indicated that the defendant fired eight to 10 rounds before the rifle appeared to jam or malfunction, and the defendant was unable to clear the weapon,” San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Leonard Trinh said in court.
Earnest, who appears to have posted an anti-Semitic manifesto online before the attack, showed no emotion in Tuesday’s court appearance, nodding at one point and answering “yes” to a question.
There were approximately 30 people inside the synagogue when the attack occurred, Trinh said.
The shooting was reported just before 11:30 a.m., police have said. Earnest left for the synagogue at around 11:15 a.m. and parked nearby before entering armed with the gun, prosecutors said.
After the rifle jammed or malfunctioned, Earnest walked out of the house of worship and toward his car but was chased by two congregants, including an off-duty Border Patrol agent who fired at him and struck Earnest’s car, Trinh said.
Earnest fled in the car and then allegedly called 911 and said he was involved in the shooting and gave his location and said he was armed, and he was arrested by a San Diego police officer, Trinh said.
When Earnest was arrested, he had a tactical vest, five loaded magazines holding 50 rounds,a rifle and a tactical helmet, Trinh said.
Stephan said it is believed that Earnest purchased the gun legally. She said that when Earnest called police, “he made statements that are consistent with the charges that we filed.”
“I don’t know of any evidence of expressions of remorse,” Stephan said.
Earnest was ordered held without bail. In addition to the charges stemming from the attack on the synagogue, Earnest is accused of setting a fire at a mosque in nearby Escondido on March 24.
In that case, Earnest is accused of using gasoline to light the fire which charred the exterior walls of the mosque, and references to the mass shooting at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, were found scrawled there, Trinh said. He said Earnest admitted to that arson in the manifesto.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom in March ordered a moratorium on executing any of the inmates on death row, but prosecutors can still seek the death penalty, Stephan said.
Earnest’s family has apologized for their son’s alleged actions, saying “We are shocked and deeply saddened by the terrible attack on the Chabad of Poway synagogue,” and that their hearts go out to the victims and the survivors.
Hannah Kaye, 22, Lori Kaye’s daughter, remembered her mother as “an advocate of justice” and “an advocate of peace.”
“Her whole life she has loved sharing stories of the world — inspirational stories that give people hope and give people purpose and give people meaning,” Hannah Kaye told NBC News’ Miguel Almaguer.
Hannah Kaye said her mother was one of the people who helped build the synagogue and was the “matriarch” of the house of worship. “She was devoted to it. She was devoted to the space, she believed in the space,” she said.
Hannah Kaye said that she will miss that her mother won’t be able to see her graduate from college and won’t be there if she has children.
“I feel comforted that every conversation that we could’ve had in life, we had,” Hannah Kaye said.
“Every experience that a mother and daughter could go through, we had. And we healed together, and we danced together and she saw me for who I was and I saw her for who she was, and we accepted one another,” she said. “And it’s just, it’s an incredible love story.”
Hannah Kaye said she is sure her mother would forgive the gunman.
“The person who did what he did was led by hatred, and my mother led her life with love,” she said. “And love wins every time.”