While 19-year-old John Earnest was going to church and attending nursing school, he was also hanging out in racist online forums, where he expressed admiration for Hitler and white supremacist terrorists.
Armed with an “AR-type” rifle, Earnest allegedly opened fire on the Chabad of Poway synagogue in a suburb of San Diego, California, on Saturday, the last day of Passover. He killed one woman, Lori Kaye, and injured three others, including the synagogue’s rabbi, who said the shooter’s gun “miraculously” jammed before he had a chance to harm anyone else.
Police later apprehended Earnest in his car after he called 911 to turn himself in. He’s since been charged with one count of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder and is being held without bail. Local officials described his actions as a “hate crime,” and San Diego County Sheriff William Gore said Earnest may face additional hate crime charges when he’s arraigned later this week.
Hours before the attack, a user identifying themselves as “John Earnest” uploaded a violently anti-Semitic, 4,000-word “open letter” to 8chan, an imageboard site popular with white supremacists. In that manifesto, Earnest claimed he was responsible for a pre-dawn act of arson at a mosque about 15 miles north of Poway on March 24.
Nobody was hurt in the fire, and police are investigating his claims.
At around 11 a.m. on Saturday, police said Earnest walked into the Chabad of Poway synagogue, located about 25 miles north of San Diego, with a gun.
Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein told the Associated Press that he was preparing for the day’s service when he heard a loud sound and saw a young man approaching him, wearing sunglasses and holding a rifle.
“I couldn’t see his eyes,” Goldstein said. “I couldn’t see his soul.” He said he heard more gunshots and as he was raising his hands to protect himself, the gunman shot him. Eight-year-old Noya Dahan and her 34-year-old uncle Almog Peretz were also shot.
A congregant and Iraq War veteran named Oscar Stewart told NBC News that he charged toward the shooter without thinking and yelled that he would kill him.
"I must've scared him, because he dropped his weapon,” Stewart said. “And he ran away.”
The shooter fled in his vehicle and then called 911 to turn himself in. Upon being apprehended by police, San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said he “pulled over, jumped out of the car with his hands up, and was immediately taken into custody.”
“There is no indication at this point in the investigation that Earnest was part of an organized group,” Sheriff Gore said in a statement on Sunday. “We believe he acted alone and without outside support in carrying out the attack. We are continuing to explore every investigative avenue to bring out all the facts in the case.”
Police have so far declined to comment on a motive. But his open letter is revealing. For example, he wrote that he was inspired by the white supremacist who killed 50 Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March.
The New Zealand shooter also posted to 8chan before his attack and gave two links: one to his manifesto and another where he would later livestream the deadly assault.
When Earnest shared his letter to 8chan, he also included a link to a possible Facebook live stream (though the link proved to be inactive). The two documents also have several similarities, both thematically and stylistically. For example, both shooters included a “Q & A” section that provided questions and answers about their ideological affiliation, political affiliations, and motives.
NBC also noted that Earnest and the New Zealand gunman used the same document-dumping services to post their manifestos.
Earnest also referenced the man who killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last year, exactly six months to the day before Earnest attacked the Chabad of Poway.
Prior to the shooting, the Pittsburgh gunman wrote on Gab that he blamed Jews for the migrant caravan headed toward the Southern border. Earnest, too, blamed Jews for helping organizations that promote immigration and wrote that they were trying to facilitate a “white genocide,” a term coined by far-right conspiracy theorists.
Earnest’s letter contained much of the same violent, anti-Semitic language and tropes that are standard fare on sites like 8chan and 4chan. He also urged his readers, who he called “anons” — as posters on 8chan and 4chan call themselves — to carry out similar acts of violence.
Not much has come out about Earnest’s personal life or history yet. California State University, San Marcos, said he was on the dean’s list. He was also on the varsity swim team and played piano.
He also attended the Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church, CNN reported. Pastor Zach Keele told CNN that Earnest had been a member of the church for most of his life.
“We completely deplore what he did,” Keele said. "It is not part of our beliefs, our practices, our teachings in any way. Our hearts, our prayers, our tears go out to the victims.”
Earnest is scheduled to be arraigned at 1:30 p.m. PST on May 1.
Cover image: San Diego county sheriff deputies stand in front of the Chabad of Poway synagogue, Sunday, April 28, 2019, in Poway, Calif. A man opened fire Saturday inside the synagogue near San Diego as worshippers celebrated the last day of a major Jewish holiday. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)