SAN DIEGO (CN) – The Justice Department filed 109 federal hate crime charges Thursday against a 19-year-old man accused of killing a 60-year-old woman and wounding a rabbi, a girl and others during a shooting at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue near San Diego.
The federal charges come a week after suspect John Earnest pleaded not guilty to state charges of murder, attempted murder and arson filed by San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan. The arson charges stem from a fire Earnest took credit for setting at the Dar-ul-Arqam mosque and Islamic Center in Escondido in March.
A fire investigator found the fire was deliberately set by the use of an accelerant, such as gasoline, according to the federal charges filed Thursday.
Each of the 109 counts is eligible for the death penalty, U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer Jr. of the Southern District of California said at a press conference Thursday. Charges were filed on behalf of each of the 54 congregants – including children – at the synagogue during the attack.
“These crimes were explicitly motivated by hatred toward the Jewish and Muslim communities,” Brewer said Thursday.
“We will not allow our community members to be hunted in their houses of worship, where they should feel free and safe to exercise their right to practice their religion,” he added.
Brewer did not say whether the Justice Department will seek the death penalty, a decision that will ultimately be made by Attorney General William Barr after prosecutors consult with the victims.
Earnest faces life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty on the state charges as well.
The simultaneous prosecutions follow precedent in other recent mass shootings, including in the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh and the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting.
According to an affidavit filed with the complaint, Earnest entered the Chabad of Poway Synagogue on April 27, the last day of the sacred Jewish holiday of Passover, armed with an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle and 60 rounds of ammunition.
A licensed firearm dealer in San Diego sold the gun to Earnest, who picked it up the day before the shooting, according to the complaint.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Shane Harrigan said it does not appear any federal laws were violated in the purchase of the firearm.
Upon arriving at the synagogue, Earnest immediately shot and killed Lori Kaye, who was in the lobby, before shooting and wounding Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein. Goldstein sustained injuries to both hands and lost an index finger.
Other congregants, including a minor, were injured by shrapnel.
Several members of the congregation moved to confront Earnest, who attempted and failed to reload the firearm before he fled the scene in his 2012 Honda Civic sedan.
After fleeing, Earnest called 911 and identified himself as the shooter.
“I just shot up a synagogue. I’m just trying to defend my nation from the Jewish people … They’re destroying our people … I opened fire at a synagogue. I think I killed some people,” Earnest told dispatchers, according to the complaint.
He also said he committed the shooting “because the Jewish people are destroying the white race.”
Following the shooting, investigators found a manifesto uploaded by Earnest to the websites Mediafire.com and Pastebin.com. In it, Earnest made racist statements about Jewish and Muslim people and admitted setting the fire at the Escondido mosque.
A copy of the manifesto was later found on Earnest’s laptop during the execution of a search warrant, according to the complaint.
Both cases will be prosecuted simultaneously, with Earnest remaining in state custody and being transferred to federal custody via a writ on days he needs to appear in federal court.
Earnest is expected to make his first appearance in federal court early next week.