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Accused Poway synagogue shooter signs conditional plea agreement

John Earnest in court
John Earnest, left, talks with his attorney, San Diego County Alternate Public Defender John O’Connell, during his arrangement on state charges in 2019.
(Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The man accused of opening fire in a Poway synagogue, killing one person and wounding three others, has signed a conditional plea agreement that is now in the hands of the U.S. attorney general, who is still deciding whether to pursue the federal death penalty in the case, attorneys said at a court hearing Friday.

The terms of the plea offer were not disclosed.

John T. Earnest, 21, is indicted on 113 counts in the case.

Newly installed U.S. Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland will now have to decide how to procced. He could accept the terms of the plea or negotiate new ones. Or he could reject the possibility of a deal and continue to trial, a choice that would also have to include whether to seek the death penalty.

The highest levels of the Department of Justice have been weighing the capital punishment option since September. But a decision was not reached under the Trump administration, and the presidential transition put the decision on Garland’s desk. Federal death penalty cases are rare.

U.S. District Judge Anthony Battaglia had previously asked the government to announce its death penalty decision by Aug. 30.

“The defense provided its offer to plead guilty to the government, and we have forwarded that on to the appropriate decision-makers,” Special Assistant U.S. Atty. Rose Gibson told Battaglia on Friday.

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Earnest, who lived in Rancho Peñasquitos, is already facing the death penalty in a parallel state prosecution in San Diego County Superior Court that is headed to trial. Defense attorney Ellis “Tripp” Johnston III told the judge that both parties in the state case have been notified of the plea offer in the federal case.

A status hearing for the state case is set for Tuesday.

There were 54 people inside the Chabad of Poway the morning of April 27, 2019, when Earnest is accused of entering the lobby and opening fire with an assault-style rifle.

The indictment counts each person as a victim on charges of a hate crime and obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs using a dangerous weapon resulting in death, bodily injury and attempts to kill.

Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60, was killed in the attack. Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein was shot in both hands, causing him to lose an index finger, while Noya Dahan, then 8, and her uncle, Almog Peretz, were wounded.

Earnest was also charged with four counts of discharging a firearm during crimes of violence.

An additional charge — damage to a religious property using fire — relates to an arson at Dar-ul-Arquam mosque in Escondido a month earlier.

According to testimony in the state case, Earnest fled the synagogue after appearing to have trouble with his weapon and being confronted by congregants, including an off-duty Border Patrol agent who obtained a gun and fired back.

Earnest drove to a nearby parking lot, called 911 and told the dispatcher he’d been involved in a shooting. He then waited for law enforcement to arrive and arrest him.

An online screed attributed to him — full of racist and antisemitic statements — was posted moments before the attack on the online messaging platform 8chan, which was known to host extremists. Someone reported the manifesto, which suggested an imminent attack, to the FBI in San Diego, but the posting lacked specific details of who wrote it and a location, and by then it was too late to intervene.

Goldstein, who urged peace during speeches in the Rose Garden at the White House and at the United Nations, has since stepped down from the synagogue.

At the time of the shooting, the rabbi had been quietly under investigation by the FBI for masterminding several financial schemes tied to Chabad of Poway. He pleaded guilty last summer and has not been sentenced.

Davis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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