By Miriam Raftery
May 9, 2019 (San Diego) – The U.S. Department of Justice today filed 109 hate crime charges against John T. Earnest,19. The Rancho Penasquitos teen is charged with murder and 53 counts of attempted murder for shootings at the Chabad of Poway Synagogue on April 27. Prosecutors may seek the death penalty for crimes believed to be motivated by hatred toward the Jewish community.
“We will not allow our community members to be hunted in their houses of worship, where they should feel free and safe to exercise their right to practice their religion,” said U.S. Attorney Robert S. Brewer, Jr. “Our actions today are inspired by our desire to achieve justice for all of the victims and their families.”
“No one in this country should be subjected to unlawful violence, injury, or death for who they are or for their religious beliefs,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division. “The Department will vigorously prosecute those who commit hate crimes and acts of domestic terrorism, and we will continue to work with our state and local partners to bring to justice anyone who violates the civil rights of Americans.”
“The FBI is steadfast in our commitment to gather all the facts and ensure justice is served in this case,” said FBI San Diego Acting Special Agent in Charge Suzanne Turner. “As we work together to bring justice and begin the healing process, our community has shown extraordinary strength and unity on so many levels - from our law enforcement partners, diverse faith-based communities, and extending to our citizens and neighbors.”
According to the affidavit in support of the criminal complaint, on April 27, Earnest drove to the Chabad of Poway Synagogue, where members of the congregation were gathered to engage in religious worship celebrating Shabbat and last day of Passover. Earnest entered the building armed with an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle that was fully loaded with a 10-round magazine.
He wore a chest rig which contained five additional magazines, each loaded with ten rounds of ammunition. The affidavit alleges that while inside the Poway Synagogue, Earnest opened fire, killing one person and injuring three other members of the congregation, including a juvenile. During a pause when Earnest unsuccessfully attempted to reload his firearm, several congregant members, including an off-duty Border Patrol Agent, chased Earnest as he fled from the Synagogue. Earnest fled the scene in his car, but was subsequently apprehended by law enforcement authorities who discovered the AR-15 and additional magazines of ammunition in his car.
The affidavit further alleges that after the shooting, law enforcement investigators found a manifesto online bearing Earnest’s name. A copy of the manifesto was later found on Earnest’s laptop during the execution of a search warrant. In the manifesto, Earnest made many anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim statements. Specifically, Earnest referred to “Jews” as a race, and he stated his only regret was that he did not kill more people.
According to the affidavit, Earnest also admitted in the manifesto to the arson of an Escondido Mosque in March 2019. The affidavit alleges that on March 24, 2019, seven individuals were inside the mosque when they smelled gasoline and saw flames coming through the crack of one of the mosque’s doors. The individuals put out the fire, but not before the fire had damaged the exterior of the mosque. The affidavit further alleges that surveillance video showed a suspect arriving at the mosque in the same type of vehicle Earnest used in committing the attack on the Synagogue. The defendant allegedly claimed in his manifesto that he was inspired by the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and the recent shootings at two mosques in New Zealand.
Specifically, the complaint charges 109 hate crimes violations:
- 54 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs using a dangerous weapon, resulting in death, bodily injury, and attempts to kill;
- 54 counts of hate crimes in relation to the shooting in violation of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act; and,
- One count of damage to religious property by use of fire in relation to the attempted arson of the mosque.
When hate crimes are intended to intimidate and coerce a civilian population, they may also be considered acts of domestic terrorism.
Assistant United States Attorneys Shane Harrigan, Peter Ko, John Parmley, and Caroline Han, along with Trial Attorney Rose Gibson of the Civil Rights Division, are prosecuting this case on behalf of the government. The FBI, San Diego Sheriff’s Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives conducted the investigations.
Earnest faces a maximum possible penalty of death, or life without parole. He is currently in state custody pending state criminal charges.
The defendant is expected to make his first appearance in federal court on Tuesday May 14 at 2 p.m. before U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Berg.