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U.S. prosecutors add hate crime charges in San Diego area synagogue shooting

John T. Earnest, 19, is accused in a shooting attack on the Chabad synagogue in Poway on the last day of Passover, killing one and wounding others.
Image: Neighborhood residents and members of the media stansd befoe the Chabad of Poway Synagogue after a shooting
The Chabad of Poway Synagogue in Poway, California, where a gunman killed one woman and wounded three others on April 27.Sandy Huffaker / AFP - Getty Images

Federal officials on Thursday announced that they have filed 109 hate crime charges against the suspected gunman in the April shooting at a Southern California synagogue during Passover service.

“Our actions today are inspired by our desire to achieve justice for all of the victims and their families,” U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of California Robert Brewer said at a news conference in San Diego.

The new charges against John T. Earnest, 19, include 54 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death and bodily injury and involving the attempt to kill.

“That’s one count for every person in the synagogue on April 27, including 12 children,” Brewer said. “Each of these counts is death penalty eligible.”

Brewer said Earnest called a 911 dispatcher the day of the shooting and said he thought he killed some people, and did it because he was “trying to defend my nation” against Jews.

Earnest had previously been charged with state counts of murder and attempted murder in the attack last month on the Chabad synagogue in Poway on the last day of Passover.

Authorities have said Earnest used a semiautomatic rifle in the shooting, which killed Lori Kaye, 60, and wounded three other people. The synagogue's rabbi and an 8-year-old girl were among those injured.

Earnest faces the possibility of the death penalty under the state counts of murder and three counts of attempted murder because of the hate crime circumstances added to those charges, but San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan has not announced a decision on whether to pursue it.

An anti-Semitic open letter purported to be written by the suspect was posted on a far-right message board hours before the attack. That open letter was also found on Earnest’s laptop, an FBI agent wrote in a federal criminal complaint.

According to the complaint, surveillance video shows that after Earnest opened fire at the synagogue just before 11:30 a.m., he unsuccessfully attempted to reload the weapon as several members of the congregation moved to confront him.

Earnest left the house of worship and went toward his car but was chased by two congregants, including an off-duty Border Patrol agent who fired at him and struck Earnest's car, San Diego County Deputy District Attorney Leonard Trinh said in court last week.

Earnest fled in the car, the deputy DA said. Earnest was then said to have called 911, providing his location and telling the operator that he had been involved in the shooting and was armed, Trinh said last week. He was arrested by a San Diego police officer, Trinh said last week.

Earnest had five extra 10-round magazines of ammunition in a tactical vest when he opened fire, Trinh said.

When he was arrested, authorities found magazines with an extra 50 rounds of ammunition as well as a tactical helmet, the deputy DA has said.

During a search of his car, police also found a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 Sport II semi-automatic rifle, officials said. A licensed gun dealer in San Diego sold Earnest that firearm, which he picked up one day before the shooting, according to the federal complaint.

Pleas of not guilty were entered on Earnest’s behalf at his court appearance on state charges last week. He is being held without bail at the George Bailey Detention Facility in San Diego, according to online jail records.

Gov. Gavin Newsom in March ordered a moratorium on executing any California inmates on death row, but prosecutors can still seek the death penalty, Stephan said last week.

Earnest's family has apologized for their son's alleged actions, saying "we are shocked and deeply saddened by the terrible attack on the Chabad of Poway synagogue."

Earnest is also accused of setting a fire at a mosque in nearby Escondido in March.