A 19-year-old man is in custody Saturday after opening fire on the last day of Passover at a synagogue in Poway, near San Diego, leaving one woman dead and three other people injured.
“We’ve seen these tragic events all over the United States," San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore said about the synagogue attack. "Sadly we’re seeing this happen all throughout this country, and it's tragic, especially when it happens here in our own backyard.”
John Earnest, who was taken into custody after the assault, is also suspected of setting fire to a mosque in March in nearby Escondido and making references to the New Zealand mosque terror attacks, which killed 50 people, Gore said at a news conference.
Earnest was armed with an "AR-type assault weapon" when he opened fire at the Chabad of Poway synagogue shortly before 11:30 a.m., Gore said. Saturday is Shabbat, or the Jewish Sabbath, and the synagogue was scheduled to be holding services, according to its website. On Facebook, Chabad advertised a Passover holiday celebration scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. local time.
“Clearly it’s being investigated as a homicide, we’re also looking at it is a hate crime possibility as well as several civil rights violations,” Gore said, adding the suspected shooter is currently being interviewed by detectives and FBI agents.
“We don’t right now have any connection between Earnest and any white supremacist groups,” he added. The suspect is from San Diego and has no previous arrests. A woman who picked up at his home phone number declined to comment.
Four people — a young girl, two men, and a woman — were injured, Gore said, which included the rabbi. The woman died at Palomar Medical Center; one of the men is in surgery; the other man is in stable condition; and the girl is in stable condition and was taken to a children's hospital.
"As you can imagine it was an extremely chaotic scene with people running everywhere when we got here," Sheriff Sgt. Aaron Meleen told reporters.
Earnest fled the scene himself. “There’s indications that his gun might’ve malfunctioned after firing numerous rounds,” Gore said.
An off-duty Border Patrol agent who was in the synagogue fired shots at the suspect's car, Gore said. He did not injure him but "put some bullet holes in the car that Earnest was driving."
San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said the suspect called authorities to let them know he'd been involved in the shooting and to provide his location. He then pulled his car over and was arrested by a police canine officer who was on the way to the scene. There was no exchange of gunfire during the arrest.
"[The officer] clearly saw a rifle sitting on the front passenger seat of the suspect's vehicle," Nisleit said.
Authorities said they were investigating social media posts that may be linked to the suspect.
Shortly before the incident, a post was made on the message board 8chan; it claimed to be from the shooter, saying he would livestream the attack on Facebook, and shared a manifesto that railed against Jews. Police are aware of his manifesto and are currently reviewing it.
A Facebook account linked to in the post was subsequently taken down. Gore said he couldn't confirm whether the suspect tried to livestream the attack, and a Facebook spokesperson said they didn't find a video associated with the URL that was posted.
“Our thoughts are with the victims and their families. Content that praises, supports or represents the shooting violates our Community Standards and we will remove as soon as we identify it,” a Facebook spokesperson said.
Similar to that of the suspected shooter at the Christchurch, New Zealand, mosque earlier this year, the manifesto also appeared to contain several ironic references to alt-right online culture designed to troll unsuspecting readers.
In one instance, the writer claimed, with no evidence, that the act was planned and financed by Felix Arvid Ulf Kjellberg, the Swedish YouTuber known as PewDiePie. During the livestream of his slaughter, the Christchurch suspect also told viewers to "subscribe to PewDiePie" — the YouTuber later said he was "sickened" by the reference.
Nisleit, the police chief, said his officers were also assisting in the incident and would provide extra security at places of worship.
Federal agents with the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were also on the scene.
Poway Mayor Steve Vaus described the incident as a hate crime. "All of the faith communities here are like family," he said in a phone interview on MSNBC. "Just a week ago we had an interfaith gathering to find common ground. So for this to happen only a week later, at the end of the passover, only a week after Easter, is horrific."
Minoo Anvari, a member of the synagogue, told local media her husband called her to say there had been a shooting.
"One guy came and [started to] shoot everybody, cursing," she said he told her.
Anvari also shared a message with media on behalf of her congregation: "We are standing together, we are getting stronger. Never again. You can't break us. We are strong. You can't break us."
In October, exactly six months ago to the day, 11 people were killed, and four police officers wounded, after a gunman opened fire in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, also on a Saturday morning. The suspect in that shooting, who had railed against Jews online, was subsequently charged with a total of 29 federal charges, including 11 counts of obstruction of exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death.
President Donald Trump offered his condolences to the victims. "Thoughts and prayers to all of those affected by the shooting at the Synagogue in Poway, California," he tweeted. "God bless you all. Suspect apprehended. Law enforcement did outstanding job. Thank you!"
Trump added later at a rally: "America's heart is with the victims of the horrific synagogue shooting. We forcefully condemn the evil of anti-Semitism and hate, which must be defeated."
Earnest is currently a student at California State University, San Marcos.
"I am deeply saddened and stunned by the senseless act of violence and hate that occurred this morning at Chabad of Poway, when a shooter opened fire on the congregation, resulting in the death of at least one individual and injuring others. We are heartbroken by this tragedy, which was motivated by hate and anti-Semitism," Karen S. Haynes, the school's president, said.