On Saturday, the final day of Passover, a lone gunman entered a Chabad synagogue in Poway, Calif., and opened fire, killing one woman and injuring three other worshippers. A relative of two of the victims told reporters that the family had moved to San Diego to escape the constant rocket attacks coming from Gaza.
John Earnest, 19, has been identified as the shooter who fired on worshippers at Chabad of Poway. 60-year-old Lori Kilbert Kaye was killed in the attack, and Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein was shot in the hand. Noya Dahan, 8, and her uncle, Almog Peretz, 31, both of whom had recently moved to the U.S. from Israel, were also injured. All three have been released from the hospital after being treated for their injuries.
The shooter reportedly made anti-Semitic statements when he entered the synagogue, leading Poway Mayor Steve Vaus to call the attack a “hate crime.” The attack comes six months to the day after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg, where a lone gunman killed 11 worshippers and injured seven in the deadliest attack on a Jewish community in U.S. history. Anti-Semitic incidents have been rising precipitously in the U.S., with a whopping 57 percent uptick in 2017, the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number reported since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking such incidents in 1979.
“We came from fire to fire,” said Israel Dahan, Noya’s father, who moved his family from Sderot, near the Gaza border, to the San Diego area after their home was hit several times by rockets resulting in injuries. Dahan said the family’s new home in the U.S. has also been targeted by anti-Semites who painted swastikas on the walls.
“This is sad, but I am originally from Sderot, so we know a bit about running from the Kassam rockets,” Peretz, who was shot in the leg, told Israel’s Channel 12 from the hospital.
“A person with a big rifle, like an M16, entered the synagogue and started shooting everywhere,” he said. “At first we thought the ceiling had collapsed, but then I turned around and saw he was aiming his weapon at me.”
“There were many small kids next to me,” he explained. “I took a little girl who was our neighbor and three nieces of mine and ran. I opened the back door and we ran with all the children to a building in the back. I hid them in that building.”
“As I picked up the girl, the terrorist aimed his weapon at me. I was injured in the leg.”
After escaping with the girls, Peretz, despite his injuries, returned to the synagogue to look for another of his nieces.
“I came back because one of my nieces was stuck in the bathroom. I had to go back and bring her,” he said. “Fortunately she stayed there and the terrorist had already left.”
“It can happen anywhere,” Dahan warned. “We are strong.”
Little Noya described the shooting to a CNN reporter:
Her family released a picture of Noya as she was being treated by paramedics:
— 🥕🥕 Coco Pazzo 🥕🥕 (@CocoPazzo) April 28, 2019
Mayor Paus told CNN, “I also understand from folks on the scene that this shooter was engaged by people in the congregation and those brave people certainly prevented this from being a much worse tragedy.”
Authorities say an off-duty Border Patrol agent chased Earnest as he fled the synagogue, missing the suspect but striking the getaway car.
San Diego Police Chief Dave Nisleit said at a press conference, “As this incident was unfolding, a San Diego Police Department K-9 officer was en route to the scene, he was monitoring both the San Diego police department’s dispatch and the sheriff’s dispatch, heard the call and started making his way to this call. As he was en route, he also overheard on the CHP scanner a suspect who had called into CHP to report that he was just involved in this shooting and his location, which was Rancho Bernardo and the Interstate 15.”
As the officer exited the freeway, he “clearly saw the suspect and his vehicle,” Nisleit said. ” The suspect pulled over, jumped out of his car with his hands up and was immediately taken into custody by the San Diego Police Department. As the officer was taking this 19-year-old male into custody, he clearly saw a rifle sitting on the front passenger seat of the suspect’s vehicle.”
The cowardly anti-Semite was arrested without incident. He was booked into San Diego Central Jail on one count of first-degree murder and three counts of first-degree attempted murder, according to the San Diego Sheriff’s website. He is scheduled to be arraigned on May 1. The investigation is being led by San Diego County Sheriff’s Office, with assistance from the San Diego Police and the FBI.
Authorities say they are also looking into the possibility that Earnest was involved in a mosque fire in Escondido last month that was ruled an arson.
Mayor Vaus said in a press conference, “I want you to know, this is not Poway. The Poway I know comes together as we did just a few weeks ago in an interfaith event. We always walk with our arms around each other. And we will walk through this tragedy with our arms around each other. We have deep appreciation for those who showed courage at the Chabad. Deep appreciation for the law enforcement agencies which responded so quickly. We will get through this. Our thoughts and prayers will be with the families and those who are investigating. Poway will stay strong and we will always be a community that cares for one another.”
The suspect reportedly left behind a nine-page manifesto — titled “an open letter” — that explained his decision to target the Chabad. Earnest, who said in the letter he is a nursing student from California, allegedly explained that he was inspired by Brenton Tarrant, who killed 50 people in an attack on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15. He also praised the Tree of Life synagogue attacker and Adolph Hitler, while condemning President Trump for his support for Israel.
“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, apparently addressing Tarrant. In the letter, he detailed his “disgust” for Jews and his desire to kill them. Earnest said he was willing to sacrifice his future “for the sake of my people.”
The writer identifies himself as a man of European descent. He does not claim any political labels, but asserts that Jews seek to “doom” the white race.
His screed, which is filled with quotes from the Bible, also appears to take credit for arson at an Escondido mosque the week after the New Zealand shootings.
In a Q-and-A style section of his letter, Earnest eschews a single political ideology, asserting that he does not support President Trump because of his support for Israel.
Part of the manifesto was directed at Earnest’s family and friends, to whom he explains his reasons for the attack. He later notes that his ideology was not inherited from his family.
“I willingly sacrifice my future…for the sake of my people,” he wrote.
Earnest said he did not consider himself a terrorist — he claims he is a “normal dude” who wants to have a family, “help heal people and play the piano” — and wrote that he felt no remorse for his actions.
He noted that if he was not killed in the attack, he expected “to be freed from prison and continue the fight.”