SAN DIEGO (AP) — Federal officials announced Thursday that they have filed 109 hate crime charges against the man accused of a deadly attack on a Southern California synagogue, saying that after the suspect fled he called a 911 dispatcher to report that he had done it to "defend my nation" against the Jewish people.
U.S. Attorney Robert S. Brewer Jr. said he will decide whether to seek the death penalty in the case against John T. Earnest stemming from last month's shooting at Chabad of Poway, in a suburb north of San Diego. The new charges also include an earlier arson at a nearby mosque.
"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," Brewer said at news conference in San Diego on Thursday to announce the charges.
The federal charges include murder for the killing of 60-year-old Lori Kaye, 60, who was hit twice as she prayed in the foyer. It also includes a charge for the attempted murder of 53 others.
Three people were wounded, including an 8-year-old girl, her uncle and Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was leading a service at the Chabad of Poway synagogue on the last day of Passover, a major Jewish holiday. Goldstein lost a finger.
According to a federal affidavit, Earnest legally bought a semi-automatic rifle from a licensed dealer in San Diego a day before the April 27 attack. He walked into the synagogue with the AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle that was fully loaded with a 10-round magazine. He wore a chest rig with five more magazines carrying a total of 50 bullets.
He emptied his magazine. The shooting stopped as he struggled to reload it. That's when several members of the congregation, including an off-duty Border Patrol Agent, chased Earnest from the synagogue.
After the gunman fled the scene, he called 911 from his car and told a dispatcher that he had opened fire at a synagogue, thought he killed some people and said he did it because "I'm just trying to defend my nation from the Jewish people...They're destroying our people," according to the federal affidavit.
He went on to tell the dispatcher that he did it because "the Jewish people are destroying the white race."
In a court appearance last month, Earnest pleaded not guilty to state charges of murder and attempted murder. In a separate case, he has pleaded not guilty to burning a mosque in nearby Escondido.
Prosecutors say Earnest expressed his "intent to harm Jews" in an online posting, a copy of which was also found later on his laptop. In the same posting, he also acknowledged using gasoline to spark a blaze that charred a wall of the mosque in Escondido, where seven people were inside the building at the time and saw flames coming through the crack of one of the doors.
In the posting, a man identified as Earnest said he was inspired by the attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last fall and the shooting at two mosques in New Zealand last month that killed 50 people, according to the affidavit.
Earnest was an accomplished student, athlete and musician whose embrace of white supremacy and anti-Semitism stunned his family and others closest to him. He lived with his parents and made the dean's list both semesters last year as a nursing student at California State University, San Marcos.
Earnest frequented 8chan, a dark corner of the web where those disaffected by mainstream social media sites often post extremist, racist and violent views.
"I've only been lurking here for a year and half, yet what I've learned here is priceless. It's been an honor," he wrote.
Federal hate crime charges were also filed against the gunman who killed 11 worshippers at the Pittsburgh synagogue. Authorities in that case say Robert Bowers also expressed hatred of Jews. Bowers, 46, has pleaded not guilty.
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