The man accused of opening fire inside a Southern California synagogue was an accomplished student, athlete and musician whose embrace of white supremacy and anti-Semitism has dumbfounded his family and others who thought they knew him well.
John T. Earnest, 19, made the dean’s list both semesters last year as a nursing student at California State University, San Marcos. In high school, he had stellar grades, swam on the varsity team and basked in the applause of classmates for his piano solos at talent shows.
Earnest apparently became radicalized sometime over the last two years and is charged with murder and attempted murder in Saturday’s assault on the Chabad of Poway synagogue, which killed one woman and injured three people, including the rabbi.
He is also charged with arson in connection with an attack last month on a mosque in nearby Escondido. He pleaded not guilty during a court appearance Monday and is being held without bail.
Owen Cruise, 20, saw Earnest every day during senior year at Mt. Carmel High School in San Diego when the two were in calculus and physics together. They were also both in the school’s amateur radio club.
Earnest’s piano performances drew audiences to their feet. He did a rendition of “Pirates of the Caribbean” and played Chopin and Beethoven.
“Crowds would be cheering his name,” Cruise said Monday. “Everybody loved him.”
Earnest counted Jews and black people among his friends. His father, John A. Earnest, is a popular physics teacher at Mt. Carmel, where he has worked for 31 years.
“He was very close to his dad,” Cruise said. “He always hung out in his classroom, came to see him at lunch. He always seemed like a nice guy … He didn’t seem like the type of person who would go off the deep end.”
Earnest’s father volunteered to help students with exams and homework, said Cruise, who praised his former teacher for having a big impact on his life. On the morning of the shooting, the elder Earnest was hosting a study hour for an Advanced Placement exam and brought cookies, Cruise said.
Cruise, now a sophomore at the University of California, San Diego, said the suspect lived at home and saw his parents every day.
“The way John T. acted is not representative at all of the way he was raised,” Cruise said. “They are an outstanding family. Some of the finest people I’ve ever met.”
The suspect’s parents said their son and five siblings were raised in a family that “rejected hate and taught that love must be the motive for everything we do.”
“To our great shame, he is now part of the history of evil that has been perpetrated on Jewish people for centuries,” the parents said Monday in their first public comments. “Our son’s actions were informed by people we do not know, and ideas we do not hold.”
The parents, who are cooperating with investigators, do not plan to plan to provide legal representation to their son, whose initial court appearance was scheduled for Tuesday. Family attorney Earll Pott said a public defender will probably be appointed.
Earnest burst into the synagogue on the last day of Passover, a major Jewish holiday that celebrates freedom, and opened fire with an assault-style rifle on the crowd of about 100.
He fled when the rifle jammed, according to authorities and witnesses, avoiding an Army combat veteran and an off-duty Border Patrol agent who pursued him. He called 911 to report the shooting and surrendered a short time later.
Lori Kaye , a founding member of the congregation, was killed. Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein was shot in the hands, while Noya Dahan, 8, and her uncle Almog Peretz suffered shrapnel wounds.
Kaye, 60, was remembered for her kindness Monday at a memorial service at the packed synagogue in Poway, a well-to-do suburb north of San Diego.
An online writing by a person identifying himself as John Earnest and published shortly before the attack spewed hatred toward Jews and praised the perpetrators of attacks on mosques in New Zealand that killed 50 people last month and at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue that killed 11 on Oct. 27.