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Alleged synagogue shooter pleads not guilty to 109 federal charges

By KRISTINA DAVIS | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: May 14, 2019

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — A 19-year-old man suspected of opening fire at a Poway synagogue in an anti-Semitic rampage made his first appearance in San Diego federal court Tuesday, pleading not guilty to 109 charges.

The federal hate crimes prosecution against John Timothy Earnest of Rancho Penasquitos, announced last week, is moving simultaneously alongside a state case charging him with murder, attempted murder and arson. He pleaded not guilty to those charges April 30 in San Diego Superior Court.

If convicted, both cases make him eligible for the death penalty, although separate decisions from state and federal prosecutors on whether to pursue capital punishment have not yet been reached.

The federal charges — 54 relating to obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs and 54 hate crime violations — were filed on behalf of each of the worshippers present at the Chabad of Poway on April 27 when the gunfire erupted. Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60, was killed. Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein was shot in both hands, causing him to lose an index finger, while Noya Dahan, 8, and her uncle Almog Peretz, 34, were wounded.

An additional charge — damage to a religious property using fire — relates to an arson at Dar-ul-Arquam mosque in Escondido on March 24.

Dual federal and state prosecutions for the same crime are rare, but not unheard of. Double jeopardy does not come into play, because state and federal governments are treated as separate “sovereigns.”

Similar approaches have been taken recently with other mass shootings, including the case against Dylan Roof, who killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Church in South Carolina, and the prosecution against Robert Bowers, accused of fatally shooting 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

According to the federal complaint, Earnest entered the Poway synagogue where at least 54 people had gathered to celebrate the last day of Passover.

Armed with an AR-15-style rifle and wearing an ammunition chest rig loaded with five spare magazines, Earnest first shot Gilbert-Kaye and Goldstein in the lobby, the complaint states. He then fired through the open doors of the sanctuary and an adjacent banquet hall, emptying his 10-round clip, the complaint says.

He tried to reload but appeared to have trouble, according to surveillance video viewed by authorities. Meanwhile, congregants moved to confront him, including an off-duty Border Patrol agent who fired multiple rounds at him as he fled, the court record states.

Earnest called 911 from his Honda Civic moments later, saying: “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,” the complaint says.

He allegedly told authorities he was willing to surrender and said he’d leave his rifle in his car when officers arrived. When a San Diego police officer driving in the area heard the call on the radio, he headed that direction and found Earnest where he said he’d be, at West Bernardo Drive near Interstate 15, authorities said.

A Smith & Wesson Model M&P 15 Sport II was found in the car, the complaint said.

Earnest bought the gun from a licensed San Diego firearms dealer, picking it up the day before the shooting, the complaint says. Federal prosecutors said there was nothing to indicate he’d bought the gun illegally.

During a search of the home where Earnest lives with his parents, authorities found a manifesto bearing his name on his laptop computer. It was also uploaded online.

In the manifesto, the writer admitted to setting fire to the Escondido mosque. Seven guests had been staying inside when the fire broke out in the early morning hours. One person who was awake discovered the flames, and the fire was extinguished.

A vehicle caught on surveillance camera during the incident appears to match Earnest’s, according to the complaint. Earnest’s manifesto also cites the identical message left behind by the arsonist — a message that had not been released to the public, the complaint states.

©2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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