With victims and their families watching in a crowded San Diego courtroom, the gunman who opened fire at a Poway synagogue in 2019, killing one worshipper and injuring three others, was sentenced Thursday to life in prison without parole.
It was the expected sentence for John T. Earnest, 22, who in July pleaded guilty in San Diego Superior Court, a deal that spared him a potential death sentence. Aside from life without parole, he also agreed to an additional 121 years to life sentence, plus 16 years.
Earnest had pleaded guilty to all charges filed against him, including murder, attempted murder and arson for setting fire outside an Escondido mosque a month before the Poway attack. He also admitted that both the shooting and the fire were hate crimes.
At the start of the hearing, Earnest’s attorney indicated that his client wanted to make a statement to the court, but Superior Court Judge Peter Deddeh refused.
“I don’t want this to be a platform for him to make White supremist or racist statements,” Deddeh said. “I’m not going to let him use this as a platform to add to his celebrity.”
The judge also said Earnest was not allowed to turn around and face the speakers — and there were about a dozen — when they gave their victim impact statements.
Fifty-four people were inside Chabad of Poway for a Sabbath service when Earnest opened fire inside on April 27, 2019. Congregant Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60, was killed. Founding Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, 8-year-old Noya Dahan and her uncle Almog Peretz, 34, were injured.
A month earlier, about 3:15 a.m. March 24, 2019, seven people were inside the Dar-ul-Arqam mosque when Earnest tried to set it on fire.
No one was hurt, but the façade was damaged. Authorities said the arsonist used accelerant and left graffiti referencing deadly shootings carried out by a White supremacist at New Zealand mosques days earlier.
At the time of the attack, Earnest was a 19-year-old Rancho Peñasquitos resident and nursing student at Cal State San Marcos.
Several people who’d been in the synagogue that day spoke during the roughly three-hour hearing.
The victim’s husband, Dr. Howard Kaye spoke of “deep loneliness” without his wife of 32 years. He said she was “a superior person and a wonderful woman.” He spoke of her charity and good works, and the outpouring of grief and support for him and their daughter after Gilbert-Kaye’s death.
He said the defendant was “a recalcitrant murderer.”
“It is too easy for those of weak character to get influenced by the dark, evil side,” he said.
The couple’s daughter was a college student on a visit to San Diego County when her mother was killed. Hannah Kaye, 24, said she and her mother were best friends and soulmates who laughed and dreamed together.
In court, she had questions for the killer.
“What has your racist, entitled rage offered you in the end?” Kaye asked the defendant. “How has your action of murdering my mother because she was a Jew benefited your life and brought you closer to your God? … What hurt, shame, humiliation or pain did you suffer which led you to find community and brotherhood in such darkness?”
At the synagogue that day, Gilbert-Kaye was going to — for the first time —recite a Jewish prayer for the dead to pray for her mother. It was in large part why Hannah Kaye came to visit. But Gilbert-Kaye died before she had the chance to recite it.
In court, Hannah Kaye recited the prayer for her own mother. As she prayed in Hebrew, several survivors of the attack stood up and recited with her.
Peretz, an Israeli who had been visiting his sister and attending Chabad of Poway, helped usher children away from the gunman the day of the shooting. He wrote a letter detailing his continuing anxiety, which was read aloud in court. “My name was changed to ‘terror attack victim,'” the letter read.
He also said there is still shrapnel in his body and it will always be there.
After the hearing, District Attorney Summer Stephan said she would not mention the defendant by name.
“He will be erased from history,” Stephan said. “What will remain is the name of Lori Gilbert-Kaye and all of the heroes that jumped in to save life that day. … We will not glorify this act of complete cowardice.”
The Anti-Defamation League of San Diego issued a statement on Twitter welcoming Earnest’s sentencing, saying it “completes one more step in securing some semblance of justice” for the victims.
“The San Diego Jewish Community, and all those who stand with us against hate, remains strong and resilient,” the statement from the Tammy Gilles, regional director of the organization, said.
The sentence handed down Thursday was the maximum punishment Earnest could get in the case filed in state court. The District Attorney’s Office had announced plans to pursue the death penalty, but federal prosecutors had brought a parallel case against Earnest, and a proposed plea deal loomed.
The District Attorney’s Office had to move fast. A guilty plea in federal court would have ended their case; California law prohibits further prosecution of a case that has already been prosecuted for the same conduct in another court. They struck a deal, and Earnest pleaded guilty to the state charges in July.
Two months later, Earnest pleaded guilty in the federal case, admitting to all 113 charges and avoiding capital punishment. His sentencing in U.S. District Court in San Diego is set for Dec. 28.
The Escondido mosque fire was set under the cover of darkness, early on a Sunday morning. Someone inside the building spotted the flames and a group of worshippers who’d been sleeping inside doused the fire.
About a month later, on the last day of Passover on a sunny Saturday, a gunman in sunglasses and a military-style tactical vest entered the Poway synagogue. His AR-15-style gun already raised, he opened fire.
Gilbert-Kaye was in the lobby when she was fatally shot. As bullets flew, people ducked for cover or rushed out of the synagogue, a few scooping up children as they fled.
One of the worshippers was an off-duty Border Patrol agent who fired back at the gunman. After shooting 10 bullets and struggling with his gun, Earnest left.
He drove to a nearby shopping center and called 911. “I opened fire in a synagogue,” he told the dispatcher. “I think I killed some people.”
He stayed and waited for police to arrest him.
Shortly before the attack, Earnest had posted an “open letter” online, a tirade of racist and anti-Semitic statements that declared 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 an October 2018 attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were shot and killed.
Earnest wrote that he’d been planning his attack for four weeks. The written rant also included an admission that he’d set the mosque fire, which at that point was still an unsolved case.
Someone saw the online posting shortly after it went up and, fearing a mass shooting was about to happen, called the FBI.
The shooting in Poway started about five minutes later.
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