Accused Poway synagogue shooter to face trial on murder, other charges

Poway synagogue shooting
Almog Peretz, right, one of the people injured in the April shooting at the Poway synagogue where one person died and three were injured, shows how the alleged shooter aimed his rifle inside the synagogue. He testified Friday with the assistance of Hebrew interpreter Ashi Fachler, left, during the second day of a preliminary hearing for John T. Earnest who is accused of the shooting.
(John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune)

A San Diego judge ordered a 20-year-old man to stand trial on charges of murder and three counts of attempted murder in the April shootings at a Poway synagogue.

A judge on Friday ordered a 20-year-old man to stand trial on charges of murder and attempted murder in the April shootings at a Poway synagogue.

John Timothy Earnest of Rancho Penasquitos also faces one count of arson from a fire at an Escondido mosque on March 24.

A preliminary hearing for Earnest wrapped up after a final prosecution witness testified, through an interpreter, about being shot in the leg at Chabad of Poway on April 27.

San Diego Superior Court Judge Peter Deddeh determined there was enough evidence presented at the hearing for Earnest’s case to move forward. Because of special-circumstance allegations that the crimes were committed as a hate crime, prosecutors have the option of seeking the death penalty in his case.


That decision has not yet been made, Deputy District Attorney Leonard Trinh said after the hearing.

John T. Earnest, next to Public Defender's Office investigator Dana Gary, listened on Friday during the second day of his preliminary hearing in San Diego Superior Court on charges related to the April 27 shootings at Chabad of Poway. A judge bound him over for trial on charges of murder, attempted murder and arson.
(John Gibbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Authorities believe the shootings were prompted by Earnest’s hatred of Jewish people, as expressed in an online “open letter” that he posted before the incident. In the letter, he said he made up his mind to commit the shooting after 51 people were killed and 49 injured in a March 15 suspected white-supremacist shooting at a New Zealand mosque.

Earnest’s parents, who did not attend the hearing, issued an emailed statement Friday through an attorney, saying in part that, “As the justice systems conducts court hearings to hold our son accountable for his actions, we would would like people to know that we are deeply sorry that the victims of our son’s heinous actions are having to relive the awful events of that day.”

The statement continued, “We are deeply sorry that law enforcement officers and medical personal are having to recall the terrible images they saw as they give testimony at the preliminary hearing.

“These thoughts and images overwhelm anyone seeing them, certainly the public and the first responders, but especially the family and friends of the victims. We are profoundly sorry for the grief everyone is suffering and we hope and pray for peace for everyone.”

The email said that the parents would have no further public comment until the criminal case is resolved.

Witnesses testified on Thursday, the first day of the hearing, about the “chaos” that erupted inside the synagogue when the gunman opened fire, killing one person and wounding three others. Earnest was arrested in Rancho Bernardo shortly after the 11:20 a.m. shooting, with an AR-15 rifle, tactical helmet and five 10-cartridge magazines in his car.

He had called 911 and told a dispatcher: “I opened fire in a synagogue. I think I killed some people. Some man returned fire with a pistol. I got in my car and drove away.”

He surrendered peacefully to a San Diego police officer who found Earnest parked at West Bernardo Center Road and Rancho Bernardo Drive.

Synagogue shooter
An evidence photo of the defendant being arrested that was shown during the preliminary hearing for John Earnest, accused of a synagogue shooting in Poway in April that killed one person and injured three others.
(John Gibbins / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Earnest appeared to smirk when surveillance video was played in court of 60-year-old congregant Lori Gilbert-Kaye being shot down inside the lobby of the synagogue. During a break in the proceedings, he turned partly toward spectators and made a “hang-loose” gesture with one hand, thumb and little finger extended.

Almog Peretz, 34, an Israeli who had been visiting his sister and attending Chabad of Poway for several months, testified on Friday through a Hebrew-speaking interpreter that he heard a loud “boom” while he was in the synagogue’s adjoining social hall.

He said he wasn’t sure what caused the noise, so he took a few steps toward a door into the synagogue lobby.

“I saw his face,” Peretz said. “He was standing like this with his weapon. Like a soldier.”

He raised his hands as if aiming a rifle.

Peretz said he grabbed the 4-year-old daughter of a friend in one arm and his 8-year-old niece’s hand and ran for an exit that led to an outdoor playground full of children.

“Bullets were flying all around me,” he said. He said he didn’t notice it at the time, but he believes that’s when he and his niece, Noya Dahan, were wounded by the gunfire. Rounds or shrapnel hit each of them in one leg.

“I yelled to all the kids and I ran with all the kids toward the small gate,” Peretz recalled.

He and a 15-year-old girl ushered the children into Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein’s nearby house. Then, he said, he realized he hadn’t seen where another of his nieces was, so he ran back to the synagogue to look for her.

“When I got back to the synagogue, I saw blood on my jeans,” Peretz said. “My right leg, in the back.”

Before he was ushered into an ambulance, he saw Gilbert-Kaye lying on the lobby floor.

Congregant Oscar Stewart testified on Thursday that he tried to revive the woman. Her husband, a doctor, came to help with CPR but when he realized that the unresponsive woman was his wife, he groaned and fainted, Stewart said. Gilbert-Kaye did not survive.

The rabbi, who had been in the lobby with Gilbert-Kaye when the shooting started, was wounded in both hands and lost a finger.

Peretz said he spent a day in the hospital and learned he had also sprained his knee. He later had surgery on his leg, followed by many months of physical therapy. Just two months ago he was able to walk normally, he said.

Looking back on the day of the shooting, Peretz said, “I was also very confused in my head. My adrenaline was coursing. Up until now, I still feel the same.”

Earnest’s lawyer, Deputy Public Defender John O’Connell, asked Peretz a few questions about the events that day, then prosecutors concluded their case.

O’Connell told the judge they had not met the burden of proof on each charge and allegation to warrant trial on each count, but the judge disagreed.

After the hearing, an attorney who said he was representing Peretz in a civil matter, told reporters that his client is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome because of the shooting.

Yoni Weinberg called Peretz “one of the bravest individuals I’ve ever met” for herding the children away from the gunman.

“He got 10 to 20 children to safety. He knows he saved their lives,” Weinberg said, but he added that having that knowledge hasn’t helped Peretz deal with the aftermath.

“It’s scary when you have that image burned in your head of a man in a militaristic vest aiming the rifle at you with the sole intention of taking away your life because of nothing other than your religion. He’s always looking for the next John Earnest no matter where he is.”

Earnest is to return to court on Oct. 3 and a trial date may be set at that time.

He also faces a separate, 113-count federal indictment alleging hate crimes, using a firearm and obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs by using a dangerous weapon resulting in death and injury. He could face the death penalty in this case, which is heard in federal court.