A woman has been killed and a rabbi and two other people injured after a domestic terrorist attacked a synagogue north of San Diego, on Saturday morning. The gunman, who expressed white-supremacist and anti-Semitic views in a manifesto published before the attack, fled but was quickly apprehended. The attack happened approximately six months to the day after 11 people were killed in an attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Below is everything we know so far.
Just before 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, a 19-year-old gunman armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle walked into the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, California, and began firing on those inside. About 100 people had assembled at the synagogue for a celebration of the last day of Passover. The shooter, dressed in a green military vest, fatally wounded 60-year-old Lori Gilbert-Kaye, who jumped between him and Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, 57, who was delivering the sermon at the time of the attack and was subsequently injured in the hands. An 8-year-old girl, Noya Dahan, was struck in the face and leg with shrapnel, and 34-year-old Almog Peretz took shrapnel in the leg while trying to shield and evacuate children from danger. Some witnesses say the lone gunman shouted obscenities as he fired. His rifle apparently jammed, which appears to have limited the carnage. He then fled.
An off-duty Border Patrol agent who was working as a security guard at the synagogue fired on the shooter several times as he drove way, but only struck his car.
Shortly after, about two miles from the scene, the gunman pulled over and called 911, telling the dispatcher that he was involved in the attack and providing his location. A San Diego police officer responding to the shooting then apprehended the suspect, who surrendered without incident. His assault rifle was sitting on the passenger seat of his car.
The shooter, later identified as John T. Earnest, reportedly posted a hate-filled “open letter” on social media beforehand in which he expressed white-supremacist views and claimed responsibility for an attempted arson at a mosque in nearby Escondido last month. (No one was injured in that attack, as the fire was quickly discovered and put out, and a message referencing last month’s Christchurch mosque attacks was left behind by the arsonist.)
All four victims were taken to nearby Palomar Media Center, where Gilbert-Kaye ultimately died. The injuries to the other three victims were not life-threatening, and they were later listed in stable condition.
Poway mayor Steve Vaus quickly called the attack a hate crime, citing witnesses’ accounts of what the shooter said while firing on his victims. Vaus also indicated in an MSNBC interview that he believed the congregants’ response prevented more bloodshed, insisting that, “We are grateful to those in the congregation there that engaged the shooter and prevented this from being a much more horrific incident.”
“Sadly, we’re seeing these things happen all over the country, and now even in our backyard,” San Diego County sheriff Bill Gore said on Saturday.
Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who founded the Chabad of Poway and was injured in the attack, apparently continued his sermon after the shooter fled. A member of the congregation told CNN that “he did not leave his congregation until he was finished speaking to them — calming their fears and pledging resilience.”
The investigation into the attack and gunman was quickly underway, including a search of the shooter’s home in a neighboring town. Authorities believe the attacker acted alone, but police in San Diego and Los Angeles nonetheless announced on Saturday that they were expanding their patrols at local synagogues just in case.
The Chabad of Poway is part of the Chabad-Lubavitch Orthodox Jewish Hasidic movement, which is one of the world’s largest Hasidic movements, and is focused on outreach and education for other Jews. The synagogue was founded 33 years ago in Poway, a middle-class suburb of roughly 50,000 residents that is about 25 miles northeast of San Diego. Since the attack happened during the Sabbath, some Jewish congregations in the region did not fully become aware of the attack until much later in the day.
John T. Earnest is a 19-year-old white man who lives in Rancho Peñasquitos, which is just west of Poway. He has no criminal history and no known links to white-supremacist groups, Sheriff Gore said on Saturday.
In an anti-Semitic manifesto attributed to Earnest and published to the white-nationalist-frequented message board 8chan just over an hour before the attack, the gunman described himself a “man of European ancestry,” quoted the Bible, and wrote of his hatred and “disgust” for Jews. He said he had been inspired by the deadly attacks on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last October and a pair of mosques in New Zealand last month — both of which were perpetrated by white supremacists. Saturday’s shooting also happened approximately six months, to the day, after the Pittsburgh attack, which was the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.
Earnest was attending college at Cal State University, and had gone to Mt. Carmel High School before that, where his father was a science teacher until retiring in 2016.
The author claimed that he was a nursing student and had been planning the assault for less than four weeks, insisting the ease and speed in which he conceived and carried out the attack was a “testament to the fact that literally anyone can do this.” He also took credit for last month’s early-morning arson attack at the Islamic Center of Escondido, which is only nine miles from the synagogue in Poway. That claim has not yet been confirmed by police.
In his purported 8chan post, the gunman included a link to his Facebook page and said a livestream of the attack “will begin shortly.” The Facebook page, which was deactivated several hours after the attack, reportedly contained no livestream link. NBC News noted on Saturday that the 8chan post is nearly identical, in tone and (Q&A) format, to the one left by the Australian gunman who killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15.
Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60, was killed in the attack after apparently throwing herself between the gunman and the rabbi in order to protect him.
Her husband, a physician, was also in the synagogue during the attack and the San Diego Tribune passes along the harrowing story of how he discovered that she had been shot:
Worshippers called him over to help victims, and he began to do CPR on one until he realized it was his wife, [Dr. Roneet Lev] said. He then fainted.
Kaye had gone to the synagogue to say Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for the dead, for her mother, who had recently passed away, according to Lev. “The irony is people will be saying it for her now,” Lev said.
Gilbert-Kaye, who had a 22-year-old daughter, was instrumental in helping found and support the congregation over its more than three-decade history. Regarding her heroism on Saturday, a close friend told the Tribune that, “When we heard what happened, we all said to ourselves, ‘yes, that’s how Lori would have wanted to go — I’m pretty sure if she could have picked a place to die, that would’ve been it. She died how she lived.”
Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, 57, had both of his index fingers blown off after he instinctively raised his hands when the gunman fired at him. Goldstein, who founded the Chabad of Poway in 1986, has also served as a Jewish chaplain for the San Diego Sheriff’s Department. Congregants said he delivered a sermon after the gunman fled, despite his injuries, telling the survivors, “They can’t break us.”
Speaking with NBC News on Sunday morning from the hospital, Goldstein called for resolve in confronting anti-Semitism and remembered Gilbert-Kaye, who he said was a dear friend and a “pioneering family member of our congregation.” He also had a message for the country:
I am just so heartbroken by the senseless killing. … The Constitution of the United States guarantees freedom of religion for all faiths. And you know, we are so grateful to live here in this country that protects our rights to live openly and proudly as Jews.
One thing [you can be sure of] … we will not be intimidated or deterred by this terrorist. Terrorists will not win. As Americans, we can’t cower in the face of this senseless hate that is in anti-Semitism. You know beneath the surface of every terrible experience, there lies an opportunity to grow and increase in goodness. …
This horrific event must raise alarm and concern for the safety of all places of worship, and our government needs to continue to step up and [help prioritize] securing our houses of worship.
He also spoke out in response to the Christchurch massacre last month:
Goldstein has a deep connection to Brooklyn, where he lived before heading west in his early 20s. The Daily News reported on Saturday that his father Yossi “helped build the Chabad sect in Crown Heights and was a key lieutenant of much-revered Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson.”
Almog Peretz, a 34-year-old Israeli immigrant, was injured with shrapnel in the leg while trying to rush children to safety during the attack. Here’s what he told the Times of Israel:
A person with a big rifle, like an M16, entered the synagogue and started shooting everywhere. … At first we thought the ceiling had collapsed, but then I turned around and saw he was aiming his weapon at me. There were many small kids next to me. I took a little girl who was our neighbor and three nieces of mine and ran. I opened the back door and we ran with all the children to a building in the back. I hid them in that building. As I picked up the girl, the terrorist aimed his weapon at me. I was injured in the leg.
Noya Dahan, an 8-year-old girl and Israeli immigrant, was struck in the face and leg with shrapnel during the attack. She was attending the Passover celebration with her family. They had left Sderot, Israel, for California after several close calls during rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip, according to Dahan’s father, who added that their home in the U.S. had been spray-painted with swastikas back in 2015. “We came from fire to fire,” he said after the synagogue shooting.
This post has been updated throughout to reflect new information as it became available.