California man handed life sentence over hate attack on synagogue and mosque

California man handed life sentence over hate attack on synagogue and mosque
Defendant John Earnest listens during testimony by witness Oscar Stewart during Earnest's preliminary hearing, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019, in Superior Court in San Diego. (AP)
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Updated 30 December 2021

California man handed life sentence over hate attack on synagogue and mosque

California man handed life sentence over hate attack on synagogue and mosque
  • Shooting spree and arson attack branded ‘horrific crime’ and ‘bias-motivated violence’

CHICAGO: A California man convicted of attacking a synagogue and mosque in 2019 was sentenced to life in prison without parole, US Attorney General Merrick Garland announced on Wednesday.

John Earnest entered the Chabad of Poway synagogue on April 27, 2019 and opened fire, killing one woman and injuring three others before he was stopped by police.

Earnest, who was 19 at the time, also admitted attempting to set fire to the Dar-ul-Arqam mosque in Escondido, California, on March 24, 2019.

He admitted to the two acts of violence “because of his hatred of Muslims and the religious character of the building.” Seven missionaries were asleep in the mosque, but none was injured, Garland said.

Earnest pleaded guilty to a 113-count indictment that included 54 counts relating to hate crime, 55 counts relating to arson, and four firearms offenses.

“All people in this country should be able to freely exercise their religion without fear of being attacked,” Garland said.

“This defendant’s horrific crime was an assault on fundamental principles of our nation. The Justice Department is steadfast in its commitment to confronting unlawful acts of hate and to holding perpetrators of hate-fueled violence accountable.”

Police at the time said that Earnest had planned to kill more people at the synagogue, but his automatic rifle jammed.

“Hate has no place in our society and bias-motivated violence will not be tolerated,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke.

“By committing these heinous and senseless acts of violence against Jewish and Muslim community members, this defendant violated our most basic American ideal: All persons are created equal. The Department of Justice is committed to aggressively prosecuting bias-motivated violence and will continue partnering with state and local law enforcement to ensure that those who seek to engage in violence based on bias are held accountable for their crimes.”

According to court documents, after several weeks of planning, on the morning of April 27, 2019, Earnest drove to the Chabad of Poway synagogue, near San Diego, where members of the congregation were gathered for religious worship.

Earnest entered the building armed with an assault rifle that was fully loaded with a 10-round magazine. He wore a chest rig that held five additional magazines, each loaded with 10 rounds of ammunition.

Lori Gilbert Kaye, 60, was hit twice as she was praying. Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein was injured during the attack and lost an index finger. Police said Earnest was heading toward a children’s room at the synagogue, and several adults tried to shield their children. They were among the injured who suffered shrapnel wounds from the gunfire.

“Today we stand with the family of Lori Gilbert Kaye, the injured, and all who suffered as a result of the defendant’s heinous crimes,” said US Attorney Randy Grossman of the Southern District of California.

“The US Attorney’s Office and our law enforcement partners reject all forms of hatred and prejudice, and we will relentlessly pursue justice for the victims of bias-motivated violence.”

After Earnest emptied his initial magazine, several worshippers attempted to overpower him.

He fled in his car and, shortly afterwards, called 911 and confessed that he had “just shot up a synagogue.” Earnest was apprehended by local law enforcement who found the rifle and additional ammunition in his car.

Investigators found a manifesto written by Earnest and posted on the internet shortly before the attack. In the manifesto, Earnest made several antisemitic and anti-Muslim statements, including expressing a desire to kill people because of their Jewish faith.

The court ordered that the federal sentence will run consecutive to the state sentence. The court further recommended that Earnest be held in a federal facility.

The addition of 30 years to the life sentence ensures Earnest will not be paroled.

The case was prosecuted by Assistant US Attorneys Shane Harrigan and Peter Ko, along with Deputy Chief Rose Gibson of the Civil Rights Division. The FBI, ATF and San Diego Sheriff’s Office conducted the investigation.