POWAY, Calif. (Reuters) – A 19-year-old man who authorities said gave himself up to police shortly after carrying out a deadly shooting in a Southern California synagogue filled with Sabbath worshippers is also under investigation for a mosque arson.
The gunman walked into the suburban San Diego synagogue late Saturday morning, the last day of the week-long Jewish holiday of Passover, and opened fire with an assault-style rifle, killing one woman inside and wounding three others, including the rabbi, authorities said.
In an interview on Sunday with NBC’s “Today” program, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein described the attack.
“I was face-to-face with this murderer, terrorist, who was holding a rifle and looking straight at me,” Goldstein said. “As soon as he saw me, he started to shoot toward me. My fingers got blown away.”
Goldstein said the woman killed was Lori Kaye, a founding member of the three-decade-old congregation.
“Just a kind soul,” said Goldstein, who underwent surgery at the hospital. “Everyone in the community knew her.”
A woman who said she was a friend of Kaye, Audrey Jacobs, wrote on Facebook that Kaye left behind a husband and a 22-year-old daughter.
“Lori would have wanted all of us to stand up to hate,” Jacobs wrote. “She was a warrior of love and she will be missed.”
The other two wounded were an 8-year-old Israeli girl and her uncle. Their family had moved to the United States in search of a safer life after their home in Sderot on the Gaza border was hit several times by Palestinian rocket attacks.
The sheriff said they were struck by shrapnel but were “doing well” at a local hospital.
After the shooting, the suspect fled in a car, escaping an off-duty U.S. Border Patrol agent who shot at the getaway vehicle but missed the suspect. The suspect pulled over and surrendered to police officers a short time later.
The suspect was identified as John Earnest, 19, of San Diego, the apparent author of a “manifesto” who claimed to have set a nearby mosque on fire last month and professed drawing inspiration from the gunman who killed nearly 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand.
San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said police and FBI were investigating Earnest’s possible involvement in the March 24 pre-dawn arson fire at the Islamic Center of Escondido, a town about 15 miles (24 km) north of Poway. No one was hurt at the mosque fire.
Gore said Earnest has no prior criminal record.
Saturday’s gun violence at the Congregation Chabad temple in the town of Poway, California, about 23 miles (37 km) north of downtown San Diego, unfolded six months to the day after 11 worshippers were killed and six others wounded by a gunman who stormed the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh yelling, “All Jews must die.”
The assailant in that massacre, said to be the deadliest attack ever against Jews on U.S. soil, was also arrested.
The Passover violence came amid an upsurge in reports of anti-Semitism nationwide and abroad and followed a recent spate of deadly attacks on places of worship around the world.
Suicide bombings during Easter Sunday services at several churches in Sri Lanka killed more than 250 people. A gunman who opened fire at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15 left 49 people dead and more than 40 wounded, some as they knelt in prayer.
Gore told reporters authorities were investigating the attack as a potential hate crime.
A rambling, violently anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim screed written by an individual calling himself John Earnest was found posted to the online text-storage site Pastebin.com and the file-storage site Mediafire.com. Links to the content on both sources were posted on the far-right internet message board 8chan.
In that letter, the author also claimed credit for the Escondido mosque arson, which was put out by congregants who were sleeping inside and woke up to the smell of smoke. Local media at the time reported that a message scrawled on the driveway of the mosque mentioned the New Zealand massacre.
Earnest was enrolled at California State University in San Marcos. In a statement, the university’s president said the school was “dismayed and disheartened” to learn Earnest was a student and was working with the sheriff’s department.
He attended Mt. Carmel High School in San Diego, where his father taught physics before retiring in 2016, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper.
The synagogue on Saturday was hosting a holiday celebration that had been due to culminate in a final Passover meal that evening. Authorities said about 100 people were inside the temple, where Saturday services marking the Jewish Sabbath would have been under way or have just concluded.
Reporting by Bridget Clerkin in Poway, California; Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York and Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Lisa Shumaker
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