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Gunman who killed 1, injured 3 at Poway synagogue gets life in prison

John T. Earnest in court
John T. Earnest was sentenced Thursday to life in prison without parole.
(Eduardo Contreras / San Diego Union-Tribune)

With victims and their families watching in a crowded San Diego courtroom, the gunman who opened fire at a Poway synagogue in 2019, killing one worshipper and injuring three others, was sentenced Thursday to life in prison without parole.

It was the expected sentence for John T. Earnest, 22, who in July pleaded guilty in San Diego Superior Court, a deal that spared him a potential death sentence. Aside from life without parole, he also agreed to an additional 121 years-to-life sentence, plus 16 years.

Earnest had pleaded guilty to all charges against him, including murder, attempted murder and arson for setting a fire outside an Escondido mosque a month before the Poway attack. He admitted that both the shooting and the fire were hate crimes.

Fifty-four people were inside Chabad of Poway for a Sabbath service when Earnest opened fire on April 27, 2019. Congregant Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60, was killed. Founding Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, 8-year-old Noya Dahan and her uncle Almog Peretz, 34, were injured.

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A month earlier, about 3:15 a.m. March 24, 2019, seven people were inside the Dar-ul-Arqam mosque when Earnest tried to set it on fire.

No one was hurt, but the building was damaged. Authorities said the arsonist used accelerant and left graffiti referencing deadly shootings carried out by a white supremacist at mosques in New Zealand days earlier.

At the time of the attacks, Earnest was a 19-year-old Rancho Peñasquitos resident and nursing student at Cal State San Marcos.

Thursday’s sentence was the maximum punishment he could get in the case filed in state court. The district attorney’s office had announced plans to pursue the death penalty but agreed to life and the additional years after plea deal seemed imminent in the parallel federal case against Earnest.

Earnest pleaded guilty to the state charges in July, and two months later he pleaded guilty in the federal case, admitting to all 113 charges and avoiding the death penalty. His sentencing in U.S. District Court in San Diego is set for Dec. 28.

The Escondido mosque fire was set under the cover of darkness, early on a Sunday morning. Someone inside the building spotted the flames and a group of worshippers who’d been sleeping inside doused the fire.

About a month later, on the last day of Passover on a sunny Saturday, a gunman in sunglasses and a military-style tactical vest entered the Poway synagogue with his AR-15-style gun already raised and opened fire.

Gilbert-Kaye was in the lobby when she was fatally shot. As bullets flew, people ducked for cover or rushed out of the synagogue, a few scooping up children as they fled.

One of the worshippers was an off-duty Border Patrol agent who fired back at the gunman. After shooting 10 bullets and struggling with his gun, Earnest left.

He drove to a nearby shopping center and called 911. “I opened fire in a synagogue,” he told the dispatcher. “I think I killed some people.”

He stayed and waited for police to arrest him.

Shortly before the attack, Earnest had posted on social media a tirade of racist and antisemitic statements declaring that the “European race” must be protected.

He praised the March 2019 mass shootings at New Zealand mosques that left 51 people dead, and referenced the accused gunman in the October 2018 attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were shot and killed.

Earnest wrote that he’d been planning his attack for four weeks. The written rant also included an admission that he’d set the mosque fire, which at that point was still an unsolved case.

Someone saw the online posting shortly after it went up and, fearing a mass shooting was about to happen, called the FBI.

The shooting in Poway started five minutes later.


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