SAN DIEGO — A 20-year-old nursing student accused of opening fire at a Poway synagogue, killing one congregant and injuring several others, pleaded not guilty Thursday to charges of murder, attempted murder, arson and hate crime allegations.
John T. Earnest was bound over last month on charges stemming from the April 27 shooting at Chabad of Poway, as well as the March 24 blaze at the Dar-ul-Arqam Mosque, also known as the Islamic Center of Escondido.
Presiding Judge Peter C. Deddeh ruled that enough evidence was presented by prosecutors to hold Earnest to answer on the charges, which could lead to the death penalty. Earnest pleaded not guilty Thursday to a new charging document stemming from the preliminary hearing, though prosecutors made little changes to the original charges.
The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office has yet to decide whether to pursue capital punishment against the Rancho Penasquitos resident, who’s being held without bail. Deputy District Attorney David Grapilon said it would be “a minimum of a month or two” before the death penalty decision can be made, with further research into Earnest’s background and communication with the victims’ families needed before rendering a decision.
Earnest also faces more than 100 hate crime-related counts filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and could also face the death penalty in the federal case.
The Cal State San Marcos student is accused of carrying out the shooting on the last day of Passover, killing 60-year-old Lori Gilbert Kaye, who was shot twice in the synagogue’s foyer and died at a hospital. Kaye, a longtime member of Chabad of Poway, was at the temple with her husband and daughter to honor her mother, who had recently died.
The congregation’s rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein, 57, lost a finger in the shooting. Two other people — Almog Peretz, 34, and his 8-year-old niece, Noya Dahan — were also injured.
During the preliminary hearing, the court heard a recording of a 911 call Earnest made minutes after fleeing the scene of the synagogue shooting. On the call, he tells a dispatcher he committed the shooting because Jewish people were destroying the white race.
“They’re destroying our people. I’m trying to show them that we’re not going to go down without a fight,” Earnest is heard saying on the recording. “… I’m defending my nation against the Jewish people, who are trying to destroy all white people.”
Earnest, who was waiting in his parked car for officers to arrive and arrest him, told a dispatcher he was armed but would not use his weapon on officers.
According to testimony, a receipt found in Earnest’s car showed he purchased the rifle at San Diego Guns on April 13, the same day a California Fish and Wildlife card found in his bedroom showed he completed a hunting program, qualifying him for a hunting license. However, the license — which would allow someone in California under 21 to purchase a gun — was not valid until July 1.
Earnest allegedly admitted to both the shooting and the mosque fire in an online open letter in which he espoused flagrant anti-Semitic sentiments and a need to protect the “European race.”
In the “open letter” that authorities say Earnest posted online shortly before the shooting, 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.
He also claimed responsibility for the March 24 blaze, which was quickly extinguished by people inside the mosque. Graffiti left in the mosque’s parking lot paid tribute to the Christchurch shooter.
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.