A gunman armed with a semiautomatic rifle walked into a suburban San Diego County synagogue and opened fire on the congregation Saturday, killing one person and injuring three in an attack that authorities believe was motivated by hate.
The gunman entered Chabad of Poway in the 16000 block of Chabad Way about 11:20 a.m. and started firing, authorities said. The 19-year-old suspect, identified as John T. Earnest, of Rancho Penasquitos, was arrested a short time later.
Earnest appears to have written a letter posted on the internet filled with anti-Semitic vitriol. The letter talks about planning for the attack.
“Four weeks ago, I decided I was doing this. Four weeks later, I did it.”
Earnest is white. The manifesto says the writer is willing to sacrifice his future “for the sake of my people.”
The letter writer also claims responsibility for an arson fire that blackened the walls of the Islamic Center in Escondido on March 24. There were seven people inside the building at the time the fire erupted about 3:15 a.m., but no one was injured.
The arsonist left a note referring to a shooting rampage at two New Zealand mosques on March 15 that left 50 people dead.
“I scorched a mosque in Escondido with gasoline a week after” the New Zealand shootings, the letter says. But the people inside “woke up and put out the fire pretty much immediately after I drove away which was unfortunate.”
The suspect also championed Robert Bowers — who killed 11 people and wounded six others in the Tree of Life synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh six months ago — and Adolf Hitler.
Poway Mayor Steve Vaus called the shooting there a “hate crime,” based on statements the shooter was heard making as he entered the synagogue.
A large group of congregants had gathered behind the temple after the shooting, sheriff’s Sgt. Aaron Meleen said. About 100 people were inside the synagogue at the time celebrating Passover.
“As you can imagine, it was an extremely chaotic scene with people running everywhere when we got here,” he said.
A 60-year-old woman was killed in the attack and three others — an 8-year-old girl and two adult males — were wounded, authorities said. The injured were taken to Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, the Sheriff’s Department said.
As the attacker was fleeing the scene, an off-duty Border Patrol agent who was working as a security guard at the synagogue shot at the suspect’s vehicle, but he got away, authorities said. He was captured a short time later.
Adam Pringle, 32, said he was sitting at a 76 gas station parking lot when a swarm of San Diego police, county sheriff and California Highway Patrol cars descended on the scene less than 50 feet away.
Pringle watched as police officers pulled over the man he believed to be the shooting suspect.
“Hands up or I’ll shoot you!” Pringle heard the officer yell.
The driver quickly put his hands up, and the officer walked over with his gun drawn, Pringle said. The officer quickly arrested the man, Pringle said.
Witnesses said Rabbi Yisroel Godstein was among the injured, reportedly shot in the hand. He apparently kept trying to calm the congregation after being wounded, telling people to stay strong.
“The rabbi and two other people were injured,” said synagogue member Minoo Anvari, whose husband was inside when the shooting broke out. “One guy was shooting at everybody and cursing.”
“One message from all of us in our congregation is that we are standing together. We are getting stronger,” Anvari said. “Never again. You can’t break us. We are strong.
“Why? The question is, why? People are praying.”
President Trump offered condolences from the White House lawn Saturday.
“At this moment it looks like a hate crime,” he said. “My deepest sympathies to all of those affected. And we’ll get to the bottom of it.”
Authorities have cordoned off the area near Rancho Bernardo Road and West Bernardo Drive, about two miles from Chabad of Poway, he said.
Several neighbors reported hearing the gunshots, and some were evacuated from nearby homes to the school temporarily as a precaution.
Cantor Caitlin Bromberg of Ner Tamid Synagogue, which is down the street from Chabad of Poway, said her congregation learned of the shooting at the end of their Passover services. Saturday marked the final day of Passover, a holiday that marks the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt and freedom from slavery.
Bromberg said her congregants were en route to Chabad of Poway to show support and help in any way they can.
“We are horrified and upset, and we want them to know we are thinking of them,” she told The Times. “The message of the final day of Passover is to be looking forward to … the time when all the world will be at peace.”
Bromberg said someone from the congregation had received a text that there was a shooting at a synagogue in Poway. The person who sent the text did not know which temple was targeted and wanted to make sure the congregant was OK.
The cantor said she has not heard from Chabad of Poway leadership because they would not normally use the phone during the Sabbath.
“They would only do that on emergency basis, if they do it at all,” she said.
Across the street from the synagogue Saturday evening, people left bouquets of flowers on the sidewalk to honor the victims.
Tanya Werby, a member of the Chabad of Poway congregation, said she was planning to take her four-year-old son to the Saturday morning service but ended up staying home.
She has told her son, who attends preschool at the synagogue, that Rabbi Goldstein was was among those wounded in the shooting. But the boy is too young to understand much more.
“It’s heartbreaking,” said Werby, 42, who works at a nonprofit on the synagogue’s campus. “I never expected it to happen at our house of worship.”
Werby said Goldstein was well-known in the area because he often works with leaders of other congregations.
She said she was not surprised by reports that he did his best to defend his congregation after the shooter entered.
“I’m sure he kept his cool. He’s very strong,” Werby said. “He built this community since the 1980s. Everybody knows him. He’s a big part of this community.”
Werby described the woman who was killed as a “very generous person” who was a constant presence at the synagogue.
As the owner of a print shop, the woman donated shirts for a friendship walk and gave money as well, Werby said.
Werby’s friend, Jackie Zucker, drove from Carlsbad to join her after hearing the news.
“People came here in the morning just wanting a lovely Saturday to finish the holiday,” said Zucker, 78. “Instead, this happened. We need to stop this.”
Nami Rajaei, a high school senior who lives nearby, brought a large peach-colored flower for the impromptu memorial.
Two of Rajaei’s classmates at Rancho Bernardo High School placed candles amid the flowers at the memorial.
The three teenagers said their quiet suburban neighborhood, where children are taught to value diversity at school and at their houses of worship, was the last place they expected this to happen.
“It’s shocking to think that this type of thing would happen here,” said Rajaei, 18. “I would like to think that our community is very tolerant.”
Later Saturday, hundreds of people filled the pews at Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church for an interfaith service and candlelight vigil.
“Peace is what we’re yearning for and is at the center of all our faith traditions,” said Mark McKone-Sweet, a pastor at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Poway.
Everyone joined hands and swayed as Lori Frank, cantor of Temple Adat Shalom in Poway, led a Hebrew prayer for peace, “Oseh Shalom.’
Outside, as the daylight faded, the mourners stood in a circle holding candles, singing “We Shall Overcome.”
McKone-Sweet urged them to take the hope they felt that evening and spread it to their neighbors.
In an interview, McKone-Sweet said it was frustrating that all he could do was pray for peace when something more needs to be done to prevent religiously-motivated violence.
“What breaks my heart even more is that this is becoming normal in our country,” he said. “I fear it will become normal in our community.”
Allan Higgins, assistant to the rabbi at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Carlsbad, said Saturday morning’s attack was not a symptom of the political moment as much as an expression of hate.
The best weapon against hate is education, he said, noting that the name of his congregation means “Children of Hope.”
“Jews are simply an easy target and have been for thousands of years,” Higgins said. “If it wasn’t Jews, it would be somebody else. Nowadays, it’s often Muslims. There’s always an ability to find someone you hate.”
Tiara Miller, 19, who is Muslim and a member of the Islamic Center of San Diego, came to the vigil with her parents and two younger brothers.
She said the bloodshed at the synagogue “felt like a personal attack on me — like attacking my sibling.”
“We know what it feels like to be attacked because of the beliefs we have,” she said. “All of us are brothers and sisters of faith, even those who don’t believe in God. We should all stand together.”
In a statement Saturday, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum said it was “shocked and alarmed” at the second armed attack on a synagogue in the United States in six months, this time on the on the last day of Passover.
“Now our thoughts are with the victims and their loved ones,” Museum Director Sara J. Bloomfield said. “But moving forward this must serve as yet another wake-up call that antisemitism is a growing and deadly menace.
“The Holocaust is a reminder of the dangers of unchecked antisemitism and the way hate can infect a society. All Americans must unequivocally condemn it and confront it in wherever it appears.”
San Diego police were keeping watch on other local synagogues as a precaution. “No known threats,” Chief David Nisleit said on Twitter, “however in an abundance of caution, we will be providing extra patrol at places of worship.”
In Los Angeles, police said they were closely monitoring the synagogue shooting in Poway and “communicating with our local, state and federal partners.”
“At this time, there’s no nexus to Los Angeles, but in an abundance of caution, we will conduct high visibility patrols around synagogues and other houses of worship,” the department tweeted.
Passover is one of the most sacred holidays in the Jewish faith. The eight-day festival is typically observed with a number of rituals, including Seder meals, the removal of leavened products from the home and the sharing of the exodus story.
The attack comes six months after a man with a history of posting anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant social media messages opened fire at a temple in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people and wounding six more.
The Anti-Defamation League called that incident “the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States” and it underscored growing hate against Jews.
The leaders of many national Jewish groups heard about the attack hours after it happened because they were observing the Sabbath and the last day of Passover.
“This shooting is a reminder of the enduring virulence of anti-Semitism,” Jonathan Greenblatt, president and CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement. “It must serve as a call to action for us as a society to deal once and for all with this hate. People of all faiths should not have to live in fear of going to their house of worship. From Charleston to Pittsburgh to Oak Creek and from Christchurch to Sri Lanka, and now Poway, we need to say ‘enough is enough.’ Our leaders need to stand united against hate and address it both on social media and in our communities.”
Michael Masters, CEO of the Secure Community Network, an group that offers training and resources to synagogues on security, said his group was working with local and federal officials to help the Poway community.
“We remind synagogues and Jewish facilities everywhere that we must take steps to prevent and protect against attacks,” he said in a statement. “Today’s shooting is a sad reminder that the need has not gone away.”
John Wilkens, Pauline Repard, Teri Figueroa and Wendy Fry of the San Diego Union-Tribune and Times staff writers Melissa Etehad, Jaweed Kaleem, Angel Jennings and Alene Tchekmedyian contributed to this report.