The FBI says it got tips about a threatening social media post about five minutes before the deadly attack at the Chabad of Poway synagogue near San Diego, but it was too late to identify the suspect.
In a statement to The Associated Press, the FBI said Monday that it got word about the anonymous post through its tip website and phone line just before the attack this past Shabbos morning.
The FBI says the tips included a link to the post but didn’t offer specific information about its author or the location threatened.
The bureau says its employees immediately took action to identify who wrote the post but the shooting took place before they finished.
One of the tipsters told The Associated Press that he called the FBI tip line at 11:15 a.m. Saturday because the post linked to a manifesto that said the author was responsible for a mosque arson in the city of Escondido last month. He says he found online that had the mosque attack had happened and feared the new threat was real.
The tipster, who refused to provide his name because of security concerns, said the call with the FBI lasted four or five minutes and the shooting happened soon after. He described the FBI as quick and professional and said he doesn’t know what the bureau could have done.
The online manifesto written by a person identifying himself as John Earnest was an anti-Jewish screed posted about an hour before the attack. The poster described himself as a nursing school student and praised the suspects accused of carrying out attacks on mosques in New Zealand that killed 50 people last month and at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue that killed 11 on Oct. 27.
The attack on Chabad of Poway killed one member of the congregation and wounded the rabbi and two others. A 19-year-old man surrendered to police a short time later.
The suspect, John T. Earnest, was charged with murder and three counts of attempted murder on Monday afternoon. The charges carry special-circumstance allegations of a hate crime.
San Diego County prosecutors also charged Earnest on Monday with an earlier arson attack on a mosque. He will be arraigned Tuesday afternoon.
Earnest’s parents said Monday that they are shocked and saddened that “he is now part of the history of evil that has been perpetrated on Jewish people for centuries.”
Earnest’s parents said they raised him and his five siblings in a family, faith and community that rejected hate.
“Our son’s actions were informed by people we do not know, and ideas we do not hold,” the parents said in a statement, which didn’t include their names.
“How our son was attracted to such darkness is a terrifying mystery to us, though we are confident that law enforcement will uncover many details of the path that he took to this evil and despicable act,” the statement said.
Earnest’s parents, who are cooperating with investigators, said their sadness “pales in comparison to the grief and anguish our son has caused for so many innocent people.”
Earll Pott, a family attorney who issued the statement, said the parents will not provide a legal defense for their son, who will likely be represented by a public defender. They asked for privacy.
About 100 congregants were worshipping when the gunman killed Lori Kaye, 60, and wounded the Shul’s rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein; 8-year-old Noya Dahan; and her uncle Almog Peretz.
Earnest made the dean’s list both semesters last year as a nursing student at California State University, San Marcos. In high school, he had stellar grades and swam on the varsity team.
His father, John A. Earnest, is a popular physics teacher at the public high school he attended in San Diego.
Owen Cruise, 20, saw the younger Earnest every day during senior year at Mt. Carmel High School, when they were in calculus and physics together. They were also members of the school’s amateur radio club.
Earnest was a nationally recognized pianist who brought audiences to their feet when he played at talent shows, Cruise said. He did a rendition of “Pirates of the Caribbean” and played Chopin and Beethoven.
“Crowds would be cheering his name,” Cruise said Monday. “Everybody loved him.”
Earnest showed no signs of harboring dark thoughts or racist views, Cruise said, adding that he had friends who were Jewish and black.
“He was very close to his dad,” Cruise said. “He always hung out in his classroom, came to see him at lunch. He always seemed like a nice guy. … He didn’t seem like the type of person who would go off the deep end.”
His father worked at the school for 31 years and volunteered to help students with exams and homework, said Cruise, who praises his former teacher for having a big impact on his life. On the morning of the shooting, the elder Earnest was hosting a study hour for the Advanced Placement exam and brought cookies, Cruise said.
Cruise, now a sophomore at the University of California, San Diego, said Earnest lived at home and saw his parents every day.
“They only raised him to be the best man he could be,” Cruise said.
Oscar Stewart, an Army combat veteran, rushed the shooter just before an off-duty Border Patrol agent opened fire, authorities said.
“This is an evil person whose religion is hate,” Stewart, 51, told KGTV in San Diego.
Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who described victim Lori Kaye as a founding member of the congregation, said the attack could have harmed many more people had the shooter turned toward the sanctuary where so many were praying.
“Lori took the bullet for all of us,” Goldstein said, his hands wrapped in bandages. “She didn’t deserve to die.”
Friends described Kaye as giving, warm and attentive to community members on their birthdays and when they were sick. A wife and mother, she loved gardening and made delicious challah for her family and friends, Roneet Lev said.
When the gunfire erupted, another worshipper, Shimon Abitbul, said he put his 2-year-old grandson on the floor and waited for a break in the shooting to grab the boy and sprint away.
Abitbul, who was visiting from Israel, 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, a visitor from Israel who was wounded in the leg, said he turned around after hearing gunfire and saw the shooter standing by the door. He grabbed his niece by the hand and carried out another child.
He then saw a group of children and got them running. “I tell them, ’Go this way, go this way,” Peretz said.
(Nat Golden – YWN / AP)