POWAY, Calif. — A gunman armed with a semiautomatic rifle walked into a suburban San Diego County synagogue and opened fire on the congregation Saturday, killing one person and wounding three in an attack that authorities believe was motivated by hate.
A 19-year-old white male was arrested in connection with the shooting, authorities said. The gunman entered the Chabad of Poway about 11:20 a.m. local time and started firing.
He was identified as John T. Earnest, a Rancho Penasquitos resident. He was questioned by homicide detectives.
Earnest appears to have written a letter posted on the internet filled anti-Semitic screeds. In the letter, he also talked about the planning the attack.
“How long did it take you to plan the attack? Four weeks. Four weeks ago, I decided I was doing this. Four weeks later, I did it.”
He wrote he was willing to sacrifice his future “for the sake of my people.”
Earnest is also being investigated in connection with a mosque arson last month.
Half a year later
The attack came six months to the day after a gunman killed 11 people and wounded seven others during Saturday morning Shabbat services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
The Tree of Life held a vigil Saturday and offered its sympathy for the victims of the latest attack.
“It was only six months ago to the day that we became members of that tragic club of community-based shootings to which no one wants to belong,” read the statement from Tree of Life.
“We know first-hand the fear, anguish and healing process such an atrocity causes, and our hearts are with the afflicted San Diego families and their congregation. We will not give in to H*,” the statement read.
“These senseless acts of violence and prejudice must end,” it continued. “Enough is enough!”
Dozens of Pittsburgh residents gathered Saturday evening for the vigil of song and prayer on a corner outside the Tree of Life, joined by Mayor Bill Peduto and Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who himself survived the October attack on Tree of Life.
Peduto tweeted a picture of the vigil, accompanied by text that read: “We gather. Again. Always. Until we drive hate speech & acts of hate out of our city, our state, our nation, our world.”
The city of Pittsburgh issued a statement saying that officials are aware of the California shooting.
“We are in contact with our law enforcement partners in California, our local partners, and with federal lawenforcement,” Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said in a statement. “We will enhance security precautions as necessary.
“We understand this heartache all too well,” Hissrich said. “Our thoughts are with those in the San Diego area, and our actions locally are and will continue to be focused on keeping everyone safe.”
Suspect caught after chase
A large group of congregants had gathered behind the temple following the shooting, sheriff’s Sgt. Aaron Meleen said. It was not immediately clear how many people were attending services.
Some children were initially reported missing, he said, but they have been found.
“As you can imagine, it was an extremely chaotic scene with people running everywhere when we got here,” he said.
Those wounded in the California shooting — one female child and two adult males — were taken to Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, Calif., according to the Sheriff’s Department.
As the attacker was fleeing, an off-duty Border Patrol agent shot at his vehicle, but he got away, authorities said. Earnest was captured a short time later.
Adam Pringle, 32, said he was sitting at a 76 gas station parking lot when a swarm of San Diego police, county sheriff and California Highway Patrol cars descended on the scene less than 50 feet away.
Pringle watched as police officers pulled over the man he believed to be the shooting suspect.
“Hands up or I’ll shoot you!” Pringle heard the officer yell.
The driver quickly put his hands up and the officer walked over with his gun drawn, Pringle said. That’s when the officer quickly arrested Earnest, Pringle said.
Rabbi continues message
Rabbi Yisorel Goldstein is among the wounded, witnesses said, reportedly shot in the hand. He continued with his sermon after being wounded, telling people to stay strong.
“The rabbi and two other people were injured,” said synagogue member Minoo Anvari, whose husband was inside when the shooting broke out. “One guy was shooting at everybody and cursing.”
“One message from all of us in our congregation is that we are standing together, we are getting stronger,” Anvari said. “Never again. You can’t break us. We are strong.”
“Why? The question is, why? People are praying.”
Poway Mayor Steve Vaus, who was at the sheriff’s command center at nearby Chaparral Elementary School, told CNN that there was one fatality and that the shooting is being investigated as a hate crime.
“I understand that this was someone with hate in their heart, hate for the Jewish community,” he said of the shooter.
The mayor, who lives near the site, sought to reassure the community that there was no further threat.
“The scene is safe,” he said. “The subject is custody. We will be in prayer for those injured. … There is no ongoing threat to community.”
‘Looks like hate’
President Trump offered condolences from the White House lawn Saturday.
“At this moment it looks like a hate crime,” he said. “My deepest sympathies to all of those affected. And we’ll get to the bottom of it.”
Authorities have cordoned off the area, about two miles from the Chabad of Poway, he said.
Several neighbors reported hearing the gunshots, and some were evacuated from nearby homes to the school temporarily as a precaution.
Cantor Caitlin Bromberg of Ner Tamid Synagogue, which is down the street from Chabad of Poway, said her congregation learned of the shooting at the end of their Passover services. Saturday marked the eighth and final day of Passover, a holiday that marks the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery.
Bromberg said her congregants were en route to Chabad of Poway to show support and help in any way that they can.
“We are horrified and upset and we want them to know we are thinking of them,” she told The Times. “The message of the final day of Passover is to be looking forward to … the time when all the world will be at peace.”
Bromberg said someone from the congregation had received a text that there was a shooting at a synagogue in Poway. The person who sent the text did not know which temple was targeted and wanted to make sure the congregant was OK.
Bromberg said she has not heard from the leadership of the Chabad of Poway because they would not normally use the phone during the Sabbath.
“They would only do that on emergency basis, if they do it at all,” she said.
In a statement, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum said it was “shocked and alarmed” at the second armed attack on a synagogue in the United States in six months, this time on the on the last day of Passover.
“Now our thoughts are with the victims and their loved ones,” Museum Director Sara J. Bloomfield said. “But moving forward this must serve as yet another wake-up call that anti-Semitism is a growing and deadly menace.
“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.”
San Diego police were keeping watch on other synagogues as a precaution. “No known threats,” Chief David Nisleit said on Twitter, “however in an abundance of caution, we will be providing extra patrol at places of worship.”
In Los Angeles, police said they were closely monitoring the synagogue shooting in Poway and “communicating with our local, state and federal partners.”
“At this time, there’s no nexus to Los Angeles, but in an abundance of caution, we will conduct high visibility patrols around synagogues and other houses of worship,” the department tweeted.
Passover is one of the most sacred holidays in the Jewish faith. The eight-day festival is typically observed with a number of rituals, including Seder meals, the removal of leavened products from the home and the sharing of the Exodus story.