A gunman opened fire inside a Southern California synagogue Saturday, killing one person and injuring at least three others in an apparent hate crime that bears similarities to an attack on a mosque in New Zealand last month, renewing fears about the rise of white extremist terrorism.
Police said the gunman fired several rounds with an “AR-15 style” rifle Saturday morning at the Chabad of Poway, an Orthodox synagogue in Poway, Calif., 40 kilometres northeast of San Diego. An elderly woman was killed, while two men and a girl were in stable condition at a nearby hospital. The synagogue’s rabbi was among those injured in the attack, San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said. Witnesses told several media outlets the rabbi was shot in the hand and continued tending to his congregation and to the gunman despite his injuries.
Nearly 100 people were in the synagogue at the time celebrating the last day of Passover, one of the most important Jewish holidays. The attack comes on the six-month anniversary of the shooting death of 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and little more than a month after a gunman killed 50 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
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Police arrested John Earnest, a 19-year-old white man from San Diego in connection with the deadly attack. Mr. Gore declined to discuss a possible motive but said investigators, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, were looking at the shooting as a possible hate crime.
Police said they were examining Mr. Earnest’s social media posts, as well as a lengthy online manifesto that espoused virulent anti-Semitic views and praised both the Pittsburgh synagogue and New Zealand mosque shooters. Investigators were also probing a claim contained in the manifesto that the shooter was connected to an unsolved arson fire late last month at a mosque in nearby Escondido, Calif. The arsonist left a spray-painted message praising the New Zealand shooter in the mosque’s parking lot.
The 4,000-word document posted hours before the shooting on 8chan, an online message-board popular with supporters of white nationalism. In it, an author calling himself John Earnest said he was a nursing student from California who became radicalized after the shootings in Pittsburgh and New Zealand.
“I’m just a normal dude who wanted to have a family, help and heal people, and play the piano,” the poster writes. “I am a testament to the fact that literally anyone can do this…If you told me even 6 months ago that I would do this I would have been surprised.”
The online document, which police said they had yet to authenticate, appeared to mimic a manifesto that New Zealand shooter Brenton Tarrant also posted on 8chan, including referencing PewDiePie, a popular YouTube personality, and promising to livestream the California synagogue shooting on Facebook. Facebook disabled an account referenced in the document and police did not confirm whether the attack was livestreamed online.
The poster writes that he didn’t like U.S. President Donald Trump because of Mr. Trump’s support for Israel and doesn’t consider himself a conservative because conservatives are not violent enough.
Speaking to reporters on the lawn of the White House after a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Saturday afternoon, Mr. Trump said the attack “looks like a hate crime” and called it “hard to believe.”
“We’re doing some very heavy research,” he said before heading to a rally in Wisconsin. “At this moment it looks like a hate crime. But my deepest sympathies to all those affected, and we’ll get to the bottom of it.”
Poway Mayor Steve Vaus told CNN the gunman was “someone with hate in their heart” and believed the attack was a hate crime because of statements the shooter made when he entered the synagogue.
“This is not Poway,” he later told reporters, describing the city of about 50,000 as a close-knit interfaith community. “We always walk with our arms around each other, and we will walk through this tragedy with our arms around each other.”
The gunman opened fire inside the synagogue around 11:23 a.m. local time Saturday. An armed off-duty U.S. border patrol agent who was working as a security guard at the synagogue shot at the gunman as he fled, missing the suspect, but hitting his car. Sheriff Gore said there was evidence the gunman’s firearm malfunctioned during the attack after he fired “numerous rounds.”
The gunman then called the California Highway Patrol to report that he had been involved in the shooting and gave police his location, San Diego police chief David Nisleit said. A San Diego police officer stopped the man’s car down the street from the synagogue and the suspect turned himself in.
Several Democratic lawmakers reacted to the shooting by urging a crackdown on both gun violence and hate crimes. “We must work every day to eradicate all forms of hatred and bigotry and take serious action to protect Americans from gun violence,” Presidential candidate Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders wrote on Twitter.
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Police in the San Diego area said they would step up patrols at the region’s houses of worship over the weekend to protect against copycat attacks.
“Sadly, we’re seeing this happen all too often around our country,” Sheriff Gore said. “And it’s tragic, especially when it happens here in our own backyard.”