POWAY, California—John T. Earnest pleaded not guilty Tuesday to murder charges for an attack on a local synagogue that killed one person on Saturday, a crime the district attorney alleged he committed with “terror on his mind.”
Earnest, 19, entered court looking sullen and angry but said nothing during the brief arraignment. Dressed in a blue jail jumpsuit, he watched from a glass box as a public defender entered his not-guilty plea.
A judge ordered Earnest held without bail as requested by the D.A.’s office, calling him an “obvious and extraordinary risk to public safety and to the community.”
Authorities say Earnest entered Chabad of Poway and opened fire with an assault-style rifle during Passover services. He is charged with murdering Lori Kaye, 60. He is also charged with three counts of attempted murder for wounding Noya Dahan, 8, and her uncle, Almog Peretz, 34, who was also hurt while he helped usher children to safety.
Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein credited Kaye for saving his life by stepping into the line of fire, he said at her funeral on Monday. Goldstein, 57, was seriously wounded in both hands, losing at least one finger. His son was seated in the front row of the courtroom during the arraignment with several other members of Chabad of Poway.
Earnest was chased out of the synagogue by an Army veteran before he called 911 to turn himself in.
District Attorney Summer Stephan did not say if Earnest confessed, only saying charges are consistent with statements he made after calling police.
“He had terror on his mind,” Stephan said at a press conference following the arraignment.
Earnest fired a legally purchased AR-15 between 8 and 10 times in the synagogue, Stephan said, and carried five 10-round magazines of unexpended rounds. The attack was captured on synagogue surveillance video, according to Stephan.
“There came a moment where it appears that either the gun jammed or that he wasn’t able to release the magazine to reload,” Stephan said. Goldstein said the “miraculous” jamming prevented more bloodshed.
In a manifesto posted online just before the attack, Earnest said Jews deserved to be killed for trying to destroy the white race through immigration, a baseless far-right conspiracy theory. Earnest said in the manifesto he was inspired by a white-power terrorist attack on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, that killed 50 people in March.
Stephan said her office will determine later whether to seek the death penalty for the murder charge. Earnest faces a combined 95 years to life in custody for the attempted murder counts, which along with Kaye’s murder are being prosecuted as hate crimes.
A status conference in Earnest’s case is set for May 30, and a preliminary hearing for July 8. Stephan acknowledged Earnest could face federal charges as well.
Earnest also pleaded not guilty to a charge of setting fire to the Islamic Center of Escondido, California, a month before the synagogue attack. Earnest claimed credit for the mosque arson in his manifesto, saying it too was inspired by the New Zealand massacre. Graffiti was found at the scene citing Christchurch, authorities said at the time.
On Monday, Earnest’s parents released a statement in which they said their son is “now part of the history of evil that has been perpetrated on Jewish people for centuries.”