POWAY, Calif. — When gunfire erupted inside a Southern California synagogue during a service on the last day of Passover, Shimon Abitbul recalls he immediately placed his 2-year-old grandson on the floor and waited for a break in the shooting to grab the boy and sprint away.
Then Abitbul ran back to the shooting scene to try to help a woman he described as having a hole in her chest and who later died, he said, tears streaming down his face as he spoke Sunday outside the Chabad of Poway synagogue. The congregation’s rabbi, who was shot in the hand, had wrapped a prayer shawl around his bloodied fingers, Abitbul said.
The attack Saturday came exactly six months after a mass shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
John T. Earnest, 19, surrendered to police after bursting into the synagogue north of San Diego and opening fire as about 100 people were worshipping inside. Congregant Lori Kaye, 60, was killed in the attack, which injured Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, 8-year-old Noya Dahan and Almog Peretz, 34, authorities said. The three wounded were all released from hospitals, officials said Sunday.
Earnest, who had no previous contact with law enforcement, may face a hate crime in addition to homicide when he’s arraigned later this week, San Diego County Sheriff William Gore said. Police searched Earnest’s house and said he was also being investigated in connection with an arson attack on a mosque in nearby Escondido, California, on March 24.
Goldstein told NBC’s “Sunday Today” he was in the middle of his sermon when he heard loud noises. He turned around and saw he was “face-to-face with this murderer, this terrorist,” he said. He raised his hands to protect himself and lost one of his fingers in the shooting.
There were indications an AR-type assault weapon might have malfunctioned after the gunman fired numerous rounds inside, Gore said. An off-duty Border Patrol agent working as a security guard fired at the shooter as he fled, missing him but striking his getaway vehicle, the sheriff said.
Shortly after fleeing, Earnest called 911 to report the shooting, San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said. When an officer reached him on a roadway, “the suspect pulled over, jumped out of his car with his hands up and was immediately taken into custody,” he said.
Goldstein described Kaye as a “pioneering, founding member” of the congregation and said he was “heartbroken” by her death.
A friend of Kaye’s, Audrey Jacobs, said on Facebook that she was told by a friend who was at the synagogue during the attack that Kaye was “taking bullets” for the rabbi to save his life, and that the rabbi continued to give his sermon after being shot.
Another friend, Roneet Lev, told the Los Angeles Times that Kaye’s physician husband was called to tend to a wounded worshipper and fainted when he realized it was his wife.
Lev said Kaye had gone to the synagogue to say Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for the dead, for her mother, who had recently died.
“The irony is, people will be saying it for her now,” Lev said.
Abitbul, who was visiting from Israel and staying with his daughter and her family in Southern California, said he was still coming to grips with the carnage.
“All of us are human beings,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you are Jews or Christians or Muslims.”
Almog Peretz, who was wounded in the leg, had moved to California just a few months ago from the Israeli town of Sderot near the Gaza border, a frequent target of rocket attacks by the Hamas militant group. He said a man entered the synagogue and started shooting in all directions.
“I was with my back to the shooter. I heard a shot or two and then turned around to face him and that’s when he fired at me. I ran quickly, picking up a small girl in my hands,” he told the Israeli YNet news site. “He hit me once in the leg and I kept running. I didn’t feel it much since there were so many bullets flying by. I heard them and I saw them right next to me.”
Gore said authorities were reviewing Earnest’s social media posts, including what he described as a “manifesto.”
A person identifying himself as John Earnest posted an anti-Jewish screed online about an hour before the attack. The poster described himself as a nursing school student and praised the suspects accused of carrying out deadly attacks on mosques in New Zealand last month that killed 50 and at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, in which 11 people were killed.
“It was a hate crime, no doubt about it,” national security adviser John Bolton said on “Fox News Sunday.” He said investigators have not seen any connection between the suspect and other extremist groups.
California State University, San Marcos, confirmed that Earnest was a student who was on the dean’s list and said the school was “dismayed and disheartened” that he was suspected in “this despicable act.”“
Several dozen people, many wearing black, gathered on a corner in Poway on Sunday to show their support for the victims and synagogue congregation and to call for an end to hate and violence.
They carried signs reading “no more killing” and “Shalom.” Drivers honked as they passed by. A young boy sat with a cardboard sign reading “we must do better”.
Deb Lira, 71, of nearby Rancho Bernardo, said she was angry and sickened by the attack in what has long been a peaceful community. “I’m here because I’m Jewish and this is my message,” she said, pointing to a sign that read “never again” and “never forget.”
“I will not be silent,” she said.
There was no known threat after Earnest was arrested, but authorities boosted patrols at places of worship Saturday and again on Sunday as a precaution, police said.