A gunman shot and wounded two men in the parking garage of a North Hollywood synagogue Thursday, frightening worshippers who heard gunshots and screams before the bleeding victims stumbled in during morning services.
Authorities initially put Jewish schools and temples on alert before saying the attack appeared to be isolated.
Police detained a 17-year-old high school student near the temple because he matched a "very loose" description of the attacker, who was described as a black man wearing a hoodie, Deputy Police Chief Michel Moore said. They later released the youth and said he is no longer a suspect.
Mori Ben-Nissan, 38, and Allen Lasry, 53, were shot in the legs in the parking garage underneath the Adat Yeshurun Valley Sephardic Orthodox synagogue in the San Fernando Valley, said police Detective Steve Castro. The men, both synagogue members, arrived in separate cars for the morning service shortly before 6:30 a.m. and were in a stairwell leading up to the synagogue sanctuary when the gunman shot them several times, police said.
The victims, who were hospitalized in good condition, told police the attacker did not speak, Moore said.
‘Maybe it was a crazy person’
One worshipper, Yehuda Oz, said he and about 14 others were praying in the temple when they heard four gunshots and screams from the parking area. Two men stumbled into the temple, Oz said, and people rushed to stop their bleeding.
No one saw the attacker, he said.
"Maybe it was crazy person," Yehuda told the Los Angeles Times. "Maybe he was drugged up. Maybe it was a Jew. We don't know."
Even as investigators tried to find a motive, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other officials moved to calm fears that the attack was part of any organized anti-Semitic violence.
"We certainly recognize the location and we're sensitive to that," Moore said. "But we do not know that this was a hate crime at all."
Police searched the area for several hours but found no one. An alert that sent extra police patrols to local Jewish schools and synagogues was called off.
Camera footage not useful
Initial security camera footage from the synagogue shows the suspect but not the shooting, and the quality is too poor for investigators to identify the man, Cmdr. Jorge Villegas said.
But Castro said detectives later found more security cameras at the synagogue and were reviewing those tapes for possible clues.
Castro said information showed different scenarios for a possible motive, including a personal business dispute.
The attack occurred 10 miles from a Jewish community center where white supremacist Buford Furrow wounded three children, a teenager and an adult, in 1999. Furrow later killed a Filipino letter carrier on another street, and is serving a life sentence without chance of parole.
The synagogue is in an area of long boulevards with commercial districts, tree-studded blocks of post-World War II stucco homes and apartment complexes on the north side of the Hollywood Hills. It has the second-largest concentration of Jews in the city, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish rights group with more than 400,000 members in the United States.
Many Jews live nearby
About 6,000 Jews live within walking distance of the synagogue, among many more thousands who live in the San Fernando Valley, Cooper said.
"Adat Yeshurun is a Sephardic synagogue, which means it would attract primarily Jews from Morocco, Yemen, Israelis, some Persians," Cooper said.
It would be easy to scope out synagogue members because they show up every morning at the same time, Cooper said. The synagogue is not on a busy thoroughfare, and Cooper said he believed the gunman may have gone out of his way to attack the men.
"It's a bit of an anomaly about what was that guy doing there, and if he targeted, why there?" Cooper said.
LAPD First Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell said investigators were trying to determine whether a similar suspect might have been involved in robberies or other crimes in the area.
Shayan Yaghoubi, 13, was walking with his mother to the synagogue's adjoining school but wasn't allowed to cross the police line.
"The cops told us we can't go," he said. "I feel very bad because this is my favorite school ... I have a lot of friends over there. I hope everyone is OK. There's never been a problem with fighting."
Michael Bloom, 30, an Orthodox organizer with Hatzolah, a Jewish volunteer medical response team, grew up in the diverse neighborhood. He said there had been instances of Jews being insulted as they walked to the synagogue on the Sabbath.
"This has been going on for years. Everything from "death to Israel" to "dirty Jew,'" he said. "There are gangs in the area. It's not the safest neighborhood."