A shooter who appears to have posted an open letter riddled with anti-Semitism and racial epithets opened fire at a San Diego County synagogue today on the last day of Passover — six months to the day since the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre.
John T. Earnest, 19, from the northern San Diego suburb of Rancho Penasquitos, was taken into custody after the 11:30 a.m. shooting. Police said Earnest opened fire with a rifle at Chabad of Poway, killing one woman and wounding a girl and two men — including a rabbi who reportedly consoled the congregation after he was injured.
Police said the shooter left after his rifle possibly jammed and was fired upon as he fled by an off-duty Border Patrol agent working as a synagogue security guard; the agent struck the getaway car but did not wound Earnest, who soon after called 911 and, police said, told a California Highway Patrol dispatcher that he was involved in the shooting. A San Diego police officer en route to the synagogue heard details on the CHP radio and confronted Earnest where the suspect had pulled over along the road near Interstate 15. Officials said he surrendered without incident and a rifle was discovered on the front seat.
Chabad of Poway had just begun an eight-hour service, to culminate in a 7 p.m. meal, to end the eight-day festival of Passover. The synagogue reportedly utilized Department of Homeland Security grants in 2006 and 2010 to increase its security.
“Today we witnessed another senseless attack in America. Attacks on soft targets, including faith-based houses of worship, have occurred with unfortunate frequency both in the U.S. and abroad over the past few years,” DHS Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency Assistant Director for Infrastructure Security Brian Harrell told HSToday. “Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue, Pulse nightclub, and the Las Vegas concert massacres are still fresh in our minds. Among other incidents, the United States has experienced mass shootings in schools, at community centers, movie theaters, and restaurants.”
“The violent targeting of people who are expressing their freedom to worship must stop,” Harrell said. “The U.S. Department of Homeland Security stands ready to assist our faith-based organizations, as requested.”
After the Christchurch mosque attacks, Harrell sent a memo to the Faith-Based Information Sharing and Analysis Organization (ISAO) on “a reminder that we face an uncertain threat environment that reaches even into the most holy of places.” Harrell distributed a DHS resource guide on securing soft targets and crowded places, including identifying suspicious behavior, protective screening and controlled access, active-shooter response, and explosive device response.
A PasteBin link to a letter under Earnest’s name was posted just after 9 a.m. today to 8chan, the site where a pre-shooting announcement was posted by Brenton Tarrant, the man charged in the Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque shootings. The Earnest letter says he was inspired to start planning the synagogue attack after Tarrant’s mosque attack. Accused Pittsburgh synagogue shooter Robert Bowers is also cited as an inspiration.
The letter states that he was “doing well in nursing school” at California State University, San Marcos, but “what value does my life have compared to the entirety of the European race?” Accusing Jews of “sealing the doom of my race,” the letter adds he’d “rather die in glory or spend the rest of my life in prison than waste away knowing that I did nothing to stop this evil.” Among many anti-Semitic tropes the letter blames Jews for “their role in cultural Marxism,” for “pushing degenerate propaganda in the form of entertainment,” for “their role in feminism which has enslaved women in sin,” and for “promoting race-mixing.”
“As an individual I can only kill so many Jews,” he adds. “My act of defense is not so much about my high score.” He predicts inspiring a white nationalist revolution during which he would be freed from prison “and continue the fight.” He describes himself as a Christian, quoting multiple Bible verses, and “just a normal dude who wanted to have a family, help and heal people, and play piano” but “the Jew has forced our hand, and our response is completely justified.” In a particularly racist rant, he claims he’s not a terrorist because he’s not an Arab.
The manifesto claims he “scorched a mosque in Escondido with gasoline a week after Brenton Tarrant’s sacrifice and they never found shit on me”; he also claimed he painted “for Brenton Tarrant” in the parking lot and complained that the message wasn’t publicly reported. On March 24 at 3:15 a.m., an individual set fire and vandalized the Dar-ul-Arqam Mosque, also known as the Islamic Center of Escondido; several people were inside at the time of the fire, but no one was injured. The ATF and FBI have been offering a reward in the case.
San Diego County Sheriff William Gore said this evening that Earnest had no prior arrest record in San Diego and that authorities are investigating his possible involvement in the mosque fire.
The manifesto attributed to Earnest, which says the synagogue attack took four weeks to plan, also suggests “use flamethrowers as well as guns” in attacking Jews, adding, “I used a gun for the same reason Brenton Tarrant used a gun,” that their quest for a race war “revolution” is “running out of time.”
Gore said officials are collecting digital evidence and are in the process of reviewing the manifesto to ascertain its authenticity. Additional patrols are protecting houses of worship across San Diego County.
“We are assisting @SDSheriff with shooting incident at the Chabad of Poway synagogue. One person has been detained,” tweeted San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit. “No known threats however in an abundance of caution, we will be providing extra patrol at places of worship.”
Acting DHS Secretary Kevin McAleenan said he was “deeply saddened” by the attack, adding that “targeted violence committed against any race, religion, creed or ethnic group cannot and will not be tolerated.”
“DHS will take every appropriate action to assist with the investigation and ensure that those affected by this tragedy receive the closure and justice they deserve,” McAleenan said. “We are thankful that one of our own, an off-duty Border Patrol agent, was able to assist in the response and likely prevented the deaths of more worshipers.”
Poway Mayor Steve Vaus, also known as Grammy-winning country artist Buck Howdy, said statements made by the shooter indicate a hate crime.
“Hate has no place in ANY community… least of all Poway. We will put our arms around each other and walk through this tragedy as the family we have always been and always will be,” the mayor tweeted, noting that he had received a call from President Trump offering assistance.
“Poway has fought wildfires with pickup trucks and garden hoses. This city always comes together and stands together.”
Asked to comment on the shooting on the way to a campaign rally in Wisconsin, Trump said that his “deepest sympathies go to the people that were affected – the families, the loved ones – by the, obviously, looks right now based on my last conversations – looks like a hate crime. Hard to believe, hard to believe. With respect to the synagogue in California near San Diego. We’re doing some very heavy research. We’ll see what happens, what comes up. At this moment it looks like a hate crime. But my deepest sympathies to all of those affected. And we’ll get to the bottom of it. It looks like the person was apprehended, no more danger. And law enforcement has done a fantastic job.”
Trump also tweeted, “Sincerest THANK YOU to our great Border Patrol Agent who stopped the shooter at the Synagogue in Poway, California. He may have been off duty but his talents for Law Enforcement weren’t!”