Police in San Diego county have detained a 19-year-old man following a shooting at a synagogue on Saturday that left one woman dead and at least three people, including an eight-year-old girl, injured.
Authorities identified the suspect in the shooting in the city of Poway, 20 miles (30km) north of San Diego, as John Earnest, who had posted an antisemitic screed online in the form of an “open letter”. San Diego county sheriff William Gore said the teenager could be charged with hate crimes as well as homicide and was also being investigated in connection with an arson attack on a mosque in the nearby city of Escondido in March.
Authorities believe the suspect acted alone and that his assault style weapon may have malfunctioned during the attack, preventing further casualties.
At a rally on Saturday night Donald Trump said the entire nation “stands in solidarity with the Jewish community”, while the Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, said the attack was “yet another painful reminder that antisemitism and hatred of Jews is still with us, everywhere.”
A 60-year-old woman, Lori Gilbert Kaye, was killed in the attack. The Israeli diaspora minister, Naftali Bennett, described her as “a Jewish hero” who had thrown herself “in the path of the murderer’s bullets to save the life of the rabbi”.
Israeli officials also confirmed that two of the wounded were Israeli nationals. Eight-year-old Noya Dahan, and her uncle Almog Peretz, 34, had moved to San Diego a few years ago and were hit by shrapnel during the attack. Local authorities named the synagogue’s founding Rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein, as the third person injured in the attack, he was injured in both index fingers in what appeared to be defensive wounds, according to authorities.
The San Diego county sheriff, William Gore, said Earnest was from the city and had no prior arrests.
As the shooter fled, an off-duty border patrol agent inside the synagogue opened fire, missing him but striking his getaway vehicle, Gore said.
Earnest called 911 shortly afterward to report the shooting, the San Diego police chief, David Nisleit, said. When an officer reached the man on a roadway, “the suspect pulled over, jumped out of his car with his hands up and was immediately taken into custody”, Nisleit said.
The mayor of Poway, Steve Vaus, said the gunman was “someone with hate in their heart … towards our Jewish community and that just will not stand.”
He confirmed that members of the congregation had engaged the gunman. “Those brave people certainly prevented this from being a much worse tragedy,” he said.
The incident came on the last day of Passover and exactly six months since a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue killed 11 people.
San Diego police identify synagogue shooting suspect – videoGore said investigators were reviewing the suspect’s social media posts and that he was also being investigated in relation to a fire at a mosque last month in a nearby city.
Gore said his department would work with the FBI and the city of Escondido, 15 miles (24km) north of the synagogue, to investigate Earnest’s possible connection to an arson that caused property damage at Dar-ul-Arqam mosque last month but no injuries.
A person who identified as John Earnest wrote an online post citing deadly attacks on mosques in New Zealand and Pittsburgh synagogue last year.
Authorities confirmed they were aware of an apparent manifesto written by the attacker, but did not delve into its substance and said they were working to confirm its legitimacy.
Nisleit said there was no known threat but authorities had stepped up patrol at places of worship in the area as a precaution.
According to the event announcement on the synagogue’s Facebook page, the congregation was hosting a Passover holiday celebration that began about 30 minutes before the sheriff’s office started receiving calls. Authorities said about 100 people were inside.
Minoo Anvari, a member of the synagogue, told media outlets her husband was inside during the shooting. She said he called to tell her the shooter was shouting and cursing. She called the shooting “unbelievable” in a peaceful and tight-knit community. “We are strong; you can’t break us,” she said.
Nick Cohenmeyer, a lawyer from San Diego, heard about the shooting on Sunday morning. Scrolling through the shooter’s purported manifesto on his phone, he was sceptical gun control would be enough to prevent future shootings amid what he saw as growing antisemitism across the political spectrum, and diminished memory of the horrors Jews faced in the Holocaust. “This guy is kind of the prime example of white nationalism,” Cohenmeyer said. “I don’t think it’s Trump,” he added, “but I do see how the two could be conflated.”
San Diego county sheriff Bill Gore, center, arrives with other law enforcement officials outside of the Chabad of Poway Synagogue. Photograph: Denis Poroy/APAbraham Gelebert, from nearby Rancho Bernardo, was dropping off an Uber passenger when he stumbled upon the scene. To him, the blame for such incidents was obvious. “I think it’s the politics of Washington DC,” he told the Guardian. Behind him, a young woman, in tears, sat staring at the community centre across the street. “The lack of tolerance. We’re just taking a downslide. Instead of forming better relationships with our neighbours, different races and groups, we’re just steadily going in the opposite direction.
Gelebert added: “The leadership at the top is important, and it certainly doesn’t take much to push those who are already on the edge.”
Beyond a change at the White House, he believed there was a need for far stricter gun control.
“The easier it is for people to obtain firearms, especially those that have mental illness, the more likely these incidents are to happen. There’s an undeniable connection,” he said. “Those that refuse to accept that are living on another planet.”
The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, said on Twitter that she stood with the Jewish community against “this act of hate”.
Congressman Scott Peters, who represents the district where the shooting occurred, said Saturday: “Tragic news that a gunman has attacked Chabad of Poway synagogue, on this, the last day of Passover, a day that is supposed to be a celebration of faith and freedom. I am thinking of, and praying for, those hurt and affected.”
The governor of California, Gavin Newsom, said: “No one should have to fear going to their place of worship, and no one should be targeted for practising the tenets of their faith.”
Authorities said they were in the process of interviewing about 100 people who were in the synagogue at the time of the attack.
In Pittsburgh, a truck driver whom authorities say expressed hatred of Jews has been charged in the 27 October attack at the Tree of Life synagogue. He has pleaded not guilty.