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Poway synagogue shooter pleads guilty to murder, attempted murder

Accused Poway synagogue shooter John T. Earnest appears in court and pleads guilty. (Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A former nursing student pleaded guilty in San Diego Superior Court on Tuesday to shooting congregants at a Poway synagogue on the last day of Passover in 2019, killing one person and injuring three others, including a child.

John T. Earnest, now 22, admitted charges of murder and attempted murder in a plea deal that spares him a potential death sentence in the state case. He pleaded guilty to all the charges he faced, including arson for setting fire to an Escondido mosque a month before the attack on the synagogue, and he admitted that both acts were hate crimes.

As a result of his plea, Earnest will be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, plus 121 years to life and another 16 years. It was the maximum possible punishment he could face, short of the death penalty, which prosecutors had earlier signaled they had planned to pursue.

He is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 30 in San Diego Superior Court.

On Tuesday, Judge Peter Deddeh read into the record the factual basis for the plea. He started by asking Earnest if he had “willfully and maliciously” set fire to the mosque “for the purpose of terrorizing the worshippers.”

Earnest said he had.

The defendant also acknowledged that he killed or tried to kill the Chabad victims because they were Jewish, and that before the shooting, he had posted an online open letter saying his planned attack was motivated by hatred for Jews.

There were 54 people inside the synagogue for a Sabbath service when Earnest started shooting on April 27, 2019. Chabad of Poway congregant Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60, was killed. Founding Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, 8-year-old Noya Dahan, and her uncle, Almog Peretz, 34 were injured.

Earnest faced criminal charges for the shootings and the arson at the Dar-ul-Arqam mosque in parallel cases filed in state and federal court. There are more than 100 federal charges, include hate crimes, using a firearm and obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs by using a dangerous weapon resulting in death and injury.

In early June, attorneys in the federal case said Earnest signed a conditional plea agreement that was submitted to the office of U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland. The terms of that plea offer have not been disclosed, nor have attorneys said publicly if those terms have been accepted.

The federal case had stalled somewhat over the past year as the court awaited a decision on whether the Department of Justice would be seeking the death penalty. A decision still has not been disclosed publicly but has likely been mitigated somewhat by the offer to plead guilty.

Federal prosecutors have until Aug. 30 to let the judge know if they plan to seek execution, and Earnest is due back in federal court in Sept. 8.

The proposed plea deal in the federal case prompted prosecutors in the state case to accept a guilty plea in order to avoid double jeopardy, Deputy District Attorney Leonard Trinh said after Tuesday’s hearing.

California law prohibits further prosecution of a case that has already been prosecuted for the same conduct in another court.

“It was important that he be held accountable in state court for his crimes, and that conditional plea could have interfered with our ability to prosecute him once that plea is entered in federal court,” Trinh said.

The San Diego County District Attorney’s Office released a statement saying that while prosecutors had

the option of pursing a potential death penalty if the case had gone to trial, life in prison without the possibility of parole “is an appropriate resolution to this violent hate crime.”

Prosecutors said in the statement that the decision to accept a plea deal “was made in the interest of justice and with the knowledge that a parallel prosecution by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and possible plea in that case would prevent the state’s case from moving forward.”

“This plea ensures the defendant is held accountable for his crimes under California state law,” the statement read.

San Diego defense attorney Jeremy Warren, who does not represent Earnest but handles cases in both state and federal court, said California law is clear.

“The minute he is convicted in federal court for the same series of transactions, the state of California is precluded from bringing charges,” he said.

While a guilty plea in federal court likely would have effectively ended the state’s case, the plea in state court has no effect on the federal case.

Earnest was a 19-year-old Rancho Peñasquitos resident and Cal State San Marcos nursing student when he walked into the synagogue wearing sunglasses, a military-style tactical vest and carrying an AR-15-style and opened fire.

Witnesses would later testify at a preliminary hearing in San Diego Superior Court about the “chaos” at Chabad of Poway as bullets flew and people rushed out, some scooping up children and racing them to safety.

Kaye was in the lobby and was fatally shot as she turned to run from the gunman. Goldstein was wounded in both hands and lost a finger as a result of the shooting.

Earnest fled when an off-duty Border Patrol agent fired at him.

As Earnest drove off, he called 911 and confessed to the shooting. “I opened fire in a synagogue,” he said in the call, played during his preliminary hearing in September 2019. “I think I killed some people. Some man returned fire with a pistol. I got in my car and drove away.”

He stopped and waited for police to arrest him.

Shortly before the attack, Earnest posted an “open letter,” an online screed of racist and anti-Semitic statements and saying the “European race” must be protected. He praised the March 2019 mass shootings at New Zealand mosques, attacks that left 51 people dead, and referenced the accused gunman in October 2018 attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were fatally shot. That case is still in the pretrial stages in both state and federal court.

Earnest’s online rant — which someone spotted and reported to the FBI moments before the shooting — also included an admission that he’d set fire at Dar-ul-Arqam mosque in Escondido at about 3:15 a.m. on March 24, 2019. One of seven people inside the building spotted the flames, and the group doused the fire. No one was hurt, but the building’s façade was damaged.

Authorities said the arsonist used accelerant and scrawled vandalism referencing the New Zealand shootings. Within hours of the fire, the FBI and ATF were brought in to help investigate. They later offered $10,000 for information leading to an arrest in the case, which remained unsolved until Earnest confessed.

Chabad of Poway did not immediately respond to a request for comment following Earnest’s change of plea, and no officials with Dar-ul-Arqam mosque could be reached for comment.

Yusef Miller, an Escondido resident who leads the North County Equity and Justice Coalition, sometimes attends the mosque Earnest targeted, and he said the change of plea was a “small step toward accountability.”

“I am very relieved that he went for the guilty plea, and the family members and victims don’t have to relive this trauma over and over,” Miller said.

A month before the shooting, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order putting a moratorium on the use of the death penalty in California, and closed the execution chamber at San Quentin State Prison. His orders remain in effect as long as he is in office, although prosecutors may still seek capital punishment, as happened in Earnest’s case. However, his plea deal Tuesday removed that option for prosecutors.


© 2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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