A gunman who killed a woman and wounded three during services at a Southern California synagogue later told a 911 dispatcher he had done it because “the Jewish people are destroying the white race,” prosecutors said Thursday in announcing 109 hate crime and other charges against the man.
U.S. Attorney Robert S. Brewer Jr. said it’s possible the suspect, John T. Earnest, could face the death penalty following last month’s shooting at Chabad of Poway, in a suburb north of San Diego. A decision on that will be made at a later date, Brewer said.
The new charges against Earnest, 19, also include an earlier arson at a nearby mosque.
“We will not allow our community members to be hunted in their houses of worship, where they should feel free and safe to exercise their right to practice their religion,” Brewer said at news conference.
The federal charges include murder for the killing of 60-year-old Lori Kaye, who was hit twice as she prayed in the foyer of the synagogue. It also includes charges for the attempted murder of 53 others.
Three people were wounded, including an 8-year-old girl, her uncle and Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was leading a service on the last day of Passover, a major Jewish holiday.
“As a society we must surely focus on the preventive measure of instilling in our youth a sense of personal accountability to a Higher Being, in whose image every human being was created,” Chabad of Poway said in a statement provided to The Associated Press.
In the most detailed account yet, a federal affidavit said Earnest legally bought a semi-automatic rifle from a licensed dealer in San Diego a day before the April 27 attack. He walked into the synagogue with the AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle that was fully loaded with a 10-round magazine. He wore a chest rig with five more magazines carrying a total of 50 bullets.
The shooter emptied his magazine and stopped as he struggled to reload it, according to the affidavit. That’s when several members of the congregation, including an off-duty Border Patrol agent, chased Earnest from the synagogue.
After the gunman fled, he called 911 from his car and told a dispatcher what he had done, and said he thought had killed some people because “I’m just trying to defend my nation from the Jewish people…They’re destroying our people,” according to the affidavit.
He then told the dispatcher, “the Jewish people are destroying the white race.”
In a court appearance last month, Earnest pleaded not guilty to state charges of murder and attempted murder. In a separate case, he has pleaded not guilty to burning a mosque in nearby Escondido.
Prosecutors say Earnest had expressed his “intent to harm Jews” in an online posting, a copy of which was also found on his laptop.
In the same posting, he also acknowledged using gasoline to spark a blaze that charred a wall of the mosque in Escondido, authorities said. The fire started at about 3:15 a.m. when seven people on a spiritual retreat were inside the building sleeping at the time, according to investigators. They saw flames coming through the crack of one of the doors, grabbed water and quickly extinguished it.
In the posting, a man identified as Earnest said he was inspired by the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last fall and the shooting at two mosques in New Zealand last month that killed 50 people, according to the affidavit. A copy of the web posting of the New Zealand suspect Brenton Tarrant was found on his laptop and the suspect said he wrote Tarrant’s name on the parking lot of the mosque after the fire.
The suspect wrote that “it’s so easy to… get away with burning a synagogue (or mosque)” or shoot up an immigration center or “traitorous” politicians.
Earnest was an accomplished student, athlete and musician whose embrace of white supremacy and anti-Semitism stunned his family and others closest to him. He lived with his parents and made the dean’s list both semesters last year as a nursing student at California State University, San Marcos.
Authorities said Earnest frequented 8chan, a dark corner of the web where those disaffected by mainstream social media sites often post extremist, racist and violent views.
“I’ve only been lurking here for a year and half, yet what I’ve learned here is priceless. It’s been an honor,” he wrote.
Federal hate crime charges were also filed against the gunman who killed 11 worshippers at the Pittsburgh synagogue.