California synagogue shooter pleads guilty in deadly attack, will spend life in prison

A California man who opened fire at a synagogue two years ago, killing one person and wounding others in an anti-Jewish attack, will spend the rest of his life in prison.

John T. Earnest, now 22, pleaded guilty to murder and other charges in the April 27, 2019, attack at the Chabad of Poway, the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office said.

Earnest walked into the synagogue in the city north of San Diego with a Smith & Wesson M&P 15 rifle and opened fire, killing Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60, and wounding the rabbi, an 8-year-old girl and her uncle.

He fled and called 911, saying he was the shooter and that the Jewish people were “destroying the white race,” officials have said.

With the plea in state court Tuesday, Earnest avoids a possible death sentence. But he is also charged federally, and a decision has not been made whether to seek the death penalty in that case, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Diego said.

Earnest agreed to a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, plus additional sentences of 121 years to life and 16 years in prison, the district attorney’s office said. Sentencing is scheduled for Sept. 30.

“While we reserved the option of trying this as a death penalty case, life in prison without the possibility of parole for the defendant is an appropriate resolution to this violent hate crime, and we hope it brings a measure of justice and closure to the victims, their families, friends and the wider community,” the district attorney’s office said in a statement.

Earnest appeared to show little emotion in court Tuesday as the allegations were read, including that he was motivated by hatred and shot his victims because they were Jewish. When asked if that’s what he was pleading guilty to, he replied “yes.”

After the shooting at the synagogue, investigators found a hate-filled manifesto bearing Earnest’s name online and discovered that document on his computer, an FBI agent wrote in an affidavit in the federal case.

He expressed that he felt inspired by a 2018 attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that killed 11 people and an attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, that left more than 50 dead, officials said.

In addition to the shooting at the Poway synagogue, Earnest admitted to setting fire at a mosque with worshippers inside in Escondido, California, in March 2019. No one was hurt.

The San Diego County Attorney’s Office said it consulted with the family of Kaye and the other victims impacted by the shooting before accepting the plea.

An emailed request to Chabad of Poway seeking comment was not immediately returned Tuesday.

Earnest’s family has apologized and said they were deeply ashamed. They have said he was raised to reject hate.

He has also been charged federally with over 100 criminal counts, mostly hate crime charges.

State prosecutors said a possible plea in the federal case could have prevented the state case from going forward. Earnest submitted a conditional plea agreement in the federal case June 4, the state district attorney’s office said.

The federal case is proceeding, Kelly Thornton, spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of California, said. The deadline for a decision on whether to seek the death penalty is Aug. 30, and the next hearing is scheduled for Sept. 8.

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