What to Know
- A worshipper was killed and three others were injured, including a rabbi and an 8-year-old girl, when a man with an assault rifle opened fire inside the Chabad of Poway synagogue on April 27, 2019
- Weeks before the attack, someone tried to set fire to an Escondido mosque. Both crimes were linked to the same suspect
- The shooter pleaded guilty to all charges, including hate crime classifications, essentially guaranteeing he'll spend the rest of his life in prison
A former college student who fired an assault rifle inside a synagogue filled with worshipers during Passover in 2019, killing one woman and injuring three others, will spend the rest of his life in prison for the hate-motivated attack.
John T. Earnest, 22, was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, plus an additional 121 years to life and another 16 years as part of a plea agreement reached with the San Diego County District Attorney's Office.
The shooter pleaded guilty on July 20, 2021, to murder and multiple charges of attempted murder, with added hate crime classifications, in connection with the attack at the Chabad of Poway in San Diego's North County on April 27, 2019. The defendant also pleaded guilty to a charge of arson in connection with a fire at the Dar-ul-Arqam Mosque, also known as the Islamic Center of Escondido, on March 24, 2019.
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The former Cal State San Marcos student and Rancho Penasquitos resident carried out the shooting on the last day of Passover. Two bullets struck 60-year-old Lori Gilbert Kaye, who was at the temple with her husband and daughter to honor her mother, who had recently died. Kaye was killed in the shooting.
The congregation's rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein, was shot in both hands and lost a finger, and two other people -- Almog Peretz and his niece, 8-year-old Noya Dahan -- were also injured.
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The shooter admitted that he committed the Synagogue shooting because of his "hatred for Jews" and he planned to burn down the Escondido mosque “for purposes of terrorizing worshippers," according to the District Attorney's Office.
"Unfortunately, this murder turned out to be motivated by hate and white supremacy," DA Summer Stephan said following the sentencing. "It was racism, antisemitism and every kind of hate all wrapped into one."
She championed the survivors who shared their stories as "the best of San Diego County, the best of courage and the voice of the victims and survivors of the Chabad of Poway shooting.”
The shooter is also facing a federal court proceeding. He pleaded guilty to an additional 113 federal charges for the hate-motivated shooting on Sept. 17, 2021.
By pleading guilty in federal court, the shooter will avoid capital punishment. Federal prosecutors are seeking a federal prison term of life in prison, plus 30 years, when he is sentenced Dec. 28 in San Diego federal court.
The hearing on Wednesday gives survivors and families their first opportunity to address the killer directly. The victim impact statements were filled with sadness and anger, stories of fear and of lives forever changed. Some expressed their hatred for the shooter. And others expressed resilience and the will to overcome evil.
Kaye's husband, Dr. Howard Kaye, was the first of about a dozen people to deliver a victim-impact statement. His powerful statement described Kaye as the representation of good in this world and the shooter as the representation of evil.
“The world lost with Lori’s murder. I would like to relay some things about Lori who was murdered by the evil John Earnest," Howard Kaye said. "One thing I would tell you is that she reached the mission in her life, despite being cut off, in the grace of God, by doing acts of kindness to the very end.”
He loudly exclaimed, "How did this society he grew up in fail as bad as the murderer and why his behavior was condoned many times over the years?”
Lori Kaye's older sister, Ellen Edwards, described how she found out about the attack while on a walk with her young grandson.
"All of a sudden I felt like a third of me was gone," Edwards said. “Overnight the world learned about Lori, our beloved Lori, and she became a heroine and a symbol of bravery and of everything that is good."
She shared how her family tried to protect her 92-year-old father from the news that his daughter had been murdered in a hate-filled attack, but eventually had to tell him of the horrific act.
“When I first saw you in court here almost two years ago, I saw pure evil," Edwards said to the shooter. "I had never seen that up close before. I look at you and all I could see was pure evil in human form -- and I hope I never have to see that again.
"May Lori’s memory forever be a blessing and, Mr. Earnest, may your life forever be pure hell on Earth.”
Nathan Cox was there that day and described what he saw.
"When I heard those bullets fly, my first instinct was to run. But when the smoke cleared, I was ashamed of what I did running and I wish I could’ve been there for my mom. And that’s something I have to live with," he said.
Almog Peretz, who was credited with saving several children during the attack, was not present in court but his victim-impact statement was read describing the panic and anxiety he experiences since the attack.
“I always imagine someone coming in and opening fire on us. I’m always alert and stressed. I deal with bad dreams that startle me awake from deep sleep. I have no motivation nor energy to see things to the end, be it finding a partner, relationships with people or work," the statement said.
“My name was changed to terror-attack victim. That’s my nickname, the guy from the terror attack and also miserable paranoid," it continued. “He may have failed to kill me because I escaped but he killed both my body and soul.”
Jonathan Morales was an off-duty border patrol agent who ran towards the shooter and fired at him, scaring him away from the synagogue on that fateful day.
"I know the intention by Earnest was to destroy us and break apart our community. It did the opposite," Morales told the court. “Fellow Jews and people from all religions, walks of life, came to our aid and comforted us. Many new friendships were formed from around the country. President Trump, community leaders and law enforcement officials commended us on how we responded to your cowardly attack."
The county district said the plea deal of life in prison was accepted, "After consulting with the Kaye family and the many victims impacted by the shooting and was made in the interest of justice and with the knowledge that a parallel prosecution by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and possible plea in that case would prevent the state’s case from moving forward."
Aftermath of the Poway Synagogue Shooting
The guilty plea came before a trial could begin but much of the evidence that would have been used to connect Earnest to the crimes was presented in preliminary hearings, like a recording of a 911 call the suspect made minutes after allegedly fleeing the scene of the synagogue shooting.
On the call, the shooter can be heard telling a dispatcher he committed the shooting because Jewish people were destroying the white race.
"They're destroying our people. I'm trying to show them that we're not going to go down without a fight,'' the shooter is heard saying on the recording. "... I'm defending my nation against the Jewish people, who are trying to destroy all white people.''
San Diego police Officer Jonathan Wiese testified that he sped north on Interstate 15 at about 130 mph as reports of a shooting in suburban Poway came in over his radio. It took him just under 10 minutes to find the shooter alone and arrest him.
During the preliminary hearings, Peretz described coming face-to-face with the shooter.
"There was smoke," Peretz said. "The smoke disappeared. I saw his face and recognized his face quickly. He was standing like this with his weapon like a soldier."
Peretz scooped up nearly a dozen children to escape the shooter before he realized he and his niece were injured.
Oscar Stewart, an electrician and former servicemember, spoke about confronting the shooter -- for reasons he still can't explain, perhaps "a sense of duty" -- as shots rang from the lobby.
Surveillance footage from the date of the crime appears to show the shooter's rifle jam or malfunction.
As the gunman struggled to reload, Stewart said he relied on combat training to try to distract him from his plan of attack.
"I told him I was going to kill him," said Stewart, who served in the Persian Gulf War as a Navy bomb-disposal expert, joined the Army after the 9/11 attacks and fought in Iraq for 13 months. "I screamed it out really loud. I kept screaming at him."
Then, off-duty U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer Jonathan Morales, who was at the service, said from behind that he had a gun. The agent fired about five shots as the gunman drove away erratically, "like, pedal to the floor."
Stewart and Morales were honored as heroes by President Donald Trump for their actions that day.
The day before the synagogue shooting, Earnest bought a Smith & Wesson AR-15 rifle from a San Diego gun shop, according to federal charges. Officials have said he bought the gun legally.
In his plea change, the defendant also admitted to setting fire to the Dar-ul-Arqam Mosque in March 2019. That attack happened a few weeks prior to the shooting at the synagogue. At the time the defendant set fire to the mosque, prosecutors said, seven people were inside, on a spiritual retreat. The victims were sleeping and woke up to flames but were able to put out the fire.
Outside the mosque, investigators said, the defendant had scrawled the name of a man accused of shootings at two mosques in New Zealand in 2019, which killed 51 people.
See a timeline of events from the Escondido mosque fire in March 2019 to the FBI's investigation and more, here.