Judge enters not guilty plea for Poway synagogue suspect on federal hate crime charges

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SAN DIEGO -- A man accused of opening fire inside a Poway synagogue, killing a woman and injuring three other people, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to more than 100 federal hate crime charges alleging he acted out of hatred toward the Jewish and Muslim communities.

John T. Earnest, 19, is accused not only of the synagogue shooting but also of an earlier arson fire at an Escondido mosque. He is being charged by both federal and state prosecutors and faces a possible death sentence in both cases. Neither office has made a decision regarding whether they will pursue the death penalty.

Earnest was arraigned on the complaint (informed of the charges)  and a not guilty plea was entered on his behalf by U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Berg.

  • Kathy Nester was appointed to represent Earnest.  She is “learned counsel” (i.e., learned in the law applicable to a capital crime) and the head of Fed. Defenders of San Diego, Inc.  Ms. Nester also indicated that she would likely move to have another counsel appointed (as provided for capital cases under federal statute).
  • As to bail, the United States moved to detain Earnest based on danger to the community and risk of flight.  The defense agreed to pretrial detention, without prejudice in the event his detention status on the state side changes.
  • The court set a Preliminary Hearing for 5/28/19 at 1:30 p.m. before Judge Berg, and a hearing for arraignment on the indictment and the defense’s request for appointment of additional counsel for 6/4/19 at 1:30 p.m.  (also before Judge Berg) If an indictment is returned, the court will likely vacate the 5/28 hearing date.

Earnest, of Rancho Penasquitos, is accused of carrying out the shooting at Chabad of Poway on April 27 -- the last day of Passover -- killing Lori Gilbert Kaye, 60, who was shot twice in the synagogue's foyer and died at a hospital.

The congregation's rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein, 57, lost an index finger in the shooting. Two other people -- Almog Peretz, 34, and his 8-year-old niece, Noya Dahan -- were also injured.

Earnest is also accused of setting a March 24 fire at an Escondido mosque -- a crime to which Earnest allegedly confessed in an online manifesto he posted prior to the synagogue shooting.

Following his initial appearance Tuesday afternoon, he's slated to return to court May 28 for a preliminary hearing. He remains held without bail.

He was charged last Thursday with 109 federal hate crimes:

  • 54 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs using a dangerous weapon, resulting in death, bodily injury and attempts to kill;
  • 54 counts of hate crimes stemming from the synagogue shooting in violation of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act; and
  • one count of damage to religious property by use of fire.

Each of the 54 hate crime and obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs counts apply to a person who was inside the synagogue during the shooting, Brewer said. Among those people, 12 of the congregants present were children, he said.

Earnest is due back in federal court May 28.

Earnest is also charged in state court with murder, attempted murder and arson. His next court hearing in the state's case is a readiness conference set for May 30.

Kaye, a longtime member of Chabad of Poway, was at the temple with her physician husband and daughter the day of the shooting to honor her mother, who recently died. The rabbi, Goldstein, lost his right index finger in the shooting. Peretz was shot in a leg while shepherding children to safety. His niece was struck by shrapnel in her face and leg.

An off-duty Border Patrol agent working as a security guard was inside the temple when the shooting began, and he opened fire as the suspect fled, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said. The agent did not strike Earnest, but did hit the suspect's car, authorities said.

Police said Earnest called 911 at around 11:30 a.m. and said he had been involved in the shooting and was armed.

According to the federal complaint, Earnest told a dispatcher, "I just shot up a synagogue. I'm just trying to defend my nation from the Jewish people ... They're destroying our people ... I opened fire at a synagogue. I think I killed some people." He allegedly added that he shot up the synagogue "because the Jewish people are destroying the white race."

A San Diego police officer who had been en route to the synagogue spotted the suspect's vehicle and pulled him over at 17051 W. Bernardo Drive, less than two miles west of the synagogue, Deputy District Attorney Leonard Trinh said.

Earnest got out of his vehicle with his hands up and was taken into custody without further incident, according to police.

In the "open letter" that authorities say Earnest posted online shortly before the shooting, the author espouses flagrant anti-Semitic sentiments and a need to protect the "European race." He wrote that he spent four weeks planning the attack, citing his "disgust" for Jews and a desire to kill them, and expressed admiration for the Australian white nationalist who attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March, killing 50 people.

The writer also claims responsibility for the March 24 fire set at the Dar-ul-Arqam Mosque, also known as Islamic Center of Escondido. The 3:15 a.m. fire was quickly extinguished by people inside the mosque. Graffiti left on the building made reference to the mosques attacks in Christchurch.

Surveillance footage allegedly captured a suspect arriving at the mosque in the same type of vehicle in which Earnest was captured on the day of the synagogue shooting.

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