Synagogue Shooting Suspect Enters Not Guilty Plea

L to R: Deputy Ramon Vargas, John Earnest, Deputy Jay Cate, D.A. Leonard Trihn, Judge Joseph P Brannigan. (Krentz Johnson)

SAN DIEGO (CN) – The man accused of killing a 60-year-old woman and wounding a rabbi, an 8-year-old girl and her uncle at a Passover celebration this past weekend pleaded not guilty to murder, attempted murder and arson Tuesday afternoon.

John T. Earnest, 19, wore navy blue prison garb and glasses as he responded “yes” when San Diego Superior Court Judge Joseph Brannigan asked if he was pleading not guilty to one charge of murder, three charges of attempted murder and one charge for arson for use of an explosive in an act of terrorism. The latter charge involves a suspected arson attempt at a mosque in Escondido, California, in March.

He is represented by public defender John O’Connell.

Authorities arrested Earnest on Saturday afternoon shortly after a shooting at the Chabad of Poway left Lori Kaye dead and several people injured on the final day of the sacred Jewish holiday Passover. The shooting marked a morbid anniversary, coming six months to the day after another shooter stormed the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and killed 11 people.

Police say Earnest wrote a racist manifesto, posted online shortly before the shooting, in which he also took credit for setting the Dar-ul-Arqam mosque in Escondido on fire in March. The fire was put out by congregation members. A scrawled reference to last month’s attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, was apparently found at the scene of the Escondido mosque.

At the arraignment Tuesday, several men clad in traditional Orthodox Jewish garb sat in the front row of the courtroom.

Brannigan ordered Earnest held without bail based on the charges and background information provided by Deputy District Attorney Leonard Trinh, with San Diego’s hate crime unit.

“[He] is an obvious and extraordinary risk to public safety and the community,” Brannigan said.

In a press conference following the arraignment, San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan refused to use the gunman’s name or offer any “positive” commentary on whether he was cooperating with investigators. She said he had “terror on his mind” when he carried out the shooting.

“While Saturday’s shooting devastated the heart of San Diego County it has galvanized our spirit to stand against hate and to hold those who hate accountable,” Stephan said.

Stephan said around 11:15 a.m. Saturday, Earnest drove to the synagogue armed with a semi-automatic AR-15 rifle and tactical vest holding additional magazines of ammunition.

According to investigators, he encountered Kaye in the foyer and shot her twice, killing her. He then shot Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was injured on both hands and lost an index finger in the shooting.

Almong Peretz was injured by shrapnel while trying to protect the congregation’s children, including his 8-year-old niece, Noya Dahan, according to Stephan.

The weapon apparently jammed or the gunman was unable to remove the magazine and replace it with new rounds of ammunition, Stephan said. He had shot between eight to 10 rounds of ammunition at the synagogue.

At that point, Earnest fled the synagogue and was chased by an off-duty border patrol officer who shot at his vehicle.

Earnest called 911 to report the shooting and his location. He was arrested by a San Diego Police Department officer responding to the scene, who found 50 unfired bullets, five loaded magazines, a tactical vest, tactical helmet and rifles.

If convicted, Earnest faces life in prison without the possibility of parole or the death penalty. He also faces an additional 103 years to life for other charges, according to Stephan.

Stephan said the firearm was purchased legally, though a new California law effective Jan. 1 raised the minimum age to purchase a rifle or shotgun from 18 to 21. There are exceptions to the law, such as for people with hunting licenses, Stephan pointed out, though she did not confirm or deny if that was how the AR-15 used in the shooting was legally obtained.

The FBI has not yet brought federal charges, but Stephan said they have concurrent jurisdiction over the case. She pointed out in other hate crime shootings such as the Tree of Life shooting and the Charleston, South Carolina, church shooting, federal authorities brought concurrent charges in addition to state prosecutions.

Hate crimes have been on the rise in San Diego County, with the District Attorney’s Office prosecuting triple the number of cases in the last year alone, according to Stephan.

San Diego County and Poway have been listed as among the safest counties and cities in the country.

A status conference is scheduled for May 30. A preliminary hearing set for July 8 is expected to last one day.

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