Prosecutors seek trial for man charged with synagogue attack

Prosecutors seek trial for man charged with synagogue attack
FILE - In this April 30, 2019 file photo, John T. Earnest appears for his arraignment hearing in San Diego. Prosecutors say Earnest opened fire during a Passover service at the Chabad of Poway synagogue on April 27, killing one woman and injuring three people, including the rabbi. A preliminary hearing for Earnest begins Thursday, Sept. 18, 2019, in state court and is expected to last up to two days. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP, Pool, File)

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Prosecutors will have a recording of a 20-year-old’s call to an emergency dispatcher and his online posts when they try to convince a judge that he should be put on trial for opening fire in a synagogue on the last day of Passover, killing one woman and injuring three people, including the rabbi and an 8-year-old girl.

A preliminary hearing for John T. Earnest begins Thursday in state court and is expected to last up to two days.

Earnest has pleaded not guilty to murder, attempted murder and arson tied to a mosque fire. The murder charge, classified as a hate crime, would make him eligible for the death penalty if convicted, but prosecutors have not said what punishment they will seek.

The San Diego college student called 911 as he sped away from Chabad of Poway on April 27, saying, “I just shot up a synagogue,” according to an affidavit filed in a separate case against him in federal court. He told the dispatcher that he thought he killed some people and that he did it “because Jewish people are destroying the white race.”

Earnest told the dispatcher where he was, that he would surrender to authorities and leave his semi-automatic rifle in the car. Police arrested him without a struggle.

The nursing student and gifted pianist had tried weeks earlier to burn down a nearby mosque in Escondido, where seven people on a spiritual retreat were sleeping, according to the affidavit. They awoke to flames licking at the door and managed to extinguish the fire, which charred a wall.

Outside the mosque, the suspect had scrawled the name of the man accused of carrying out shootings at two mosques in New Zealand that killed 51 people.

In online postings, Earnest said he was inspired by the New Zealand attack and the one last fall on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, and boasted about how “easy” it is to burn down or shoot up a mosque, synagogue, immigration center, or “traitorous” politicians, according to court documents.

Authorities said Earnest frequented dark corners of the web that often post extremist, racist and violent views. In one posting, he said, “As an individual, I can only kill so many Jews.”

Details in search warrants that were unsealed in July give the clearest indication yet that Earnest was inspired by the New Zealand attacks.

On March 19, four days after that massacre, Earnest sent a text message to a person, whose name was redacted from the documents, complaining none of the links to the livestream video of the massacre were working and saying of the suspect’s online screeds, “I’ve only read a little but so far he’s spot on with everything.”

Earnest soon opened an Amazon account and used the online retailer to make purchases for his attack on the synagogue, according to court documents. He bought an ammunition holder worn across the chest, a military-style duffel bag, a “GoPro” camera, a tactical helmet and other items.

The day before the shooting, he bought a Smith & Wesson AR-15 rifle from a San Diego gun shop, according to federal charges. Officials have said he bought the gun legally under federal law.

Earnest walked into the synagogue shortly before 11:30 a.m. and shot several rounds before appearing to struggle to reload the gun, officials said. An off-duty Border Patrol agent grabbed the handgun of a parishioner and fired at least four rounds as Earnest ran out the door.