Suspect in synagogue attack stuns family with radical turn

Mourners and well wishers leave flowers and signs at a make-shift memorial across the street from the Chabad of Poway Synagogue Poway, California. (Sandy Huffaker, AFP)
Mourners and well wishers leave flowers and signs at a make-shift memorial across the street from the Chabad of Poway Synagogue Poway, California. (Sandy Huffaker, AFP)

The lone suspect in a fatal attack on a Southern California synagogue was a star scholar, athlete and musician whose embrace of white supremacy and anti-Semitism has dumbfounded his family and others who thought they knew him well.

John T. Earnest, 19, 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, swam on the varsity team and basked in applause of classmates for his piano solos at talent shows.

Earnest radicalised sometime over the last two years and is charged with murder and attempted murder in Saturday's assault on the Chabad of Poway synagogue, which killed one woman and injured three, including the rabbi. He is also charged with arson in connection with an attack last month on a mosque in nearby Escondido.

Owen Cruise, 20, saw Earnest every day during senior year at Mt. Carmel High School in San Diego when the two were in calculus and physics together. They were in the school's amateur radio club together.

Earnest's piano performances drew audiences to their feet. He did a rendition of "Pirates of the Caribbean" and played Chopin and Beethoven.

"Crowds would be cheering his name," Cruise said on Monday. "Everybody loved him."

Earnest counted Jews and blacks among his friends. His father, John A. Earnest, is a popular physics teacher at Mt. Carmel, where he has worked for the last 31 years.

"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."

Earnest's father 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.

A great shame

Cruise, now a sophomore at the University of California, San Diego, said the suspect lived at home and saw his parents every day.

"They only raised him to be the best man he could be," Cruise said.

The suspect's parents said their son and five siblings were raised in a family that "rejected hate and taught that love must be the motive for everything we do".

"To our great shame, he is now part of the history of evil that has been perpetrated on Jewish people for centuries," the parents said on Monday in their first public comments. "Our son's actions were informed by people we do not know, and ideas we do not hold."

The parents, who are cooperating with investigators, do not plan to provide legal representation to their son, whose initial court appearance was scheduled for Tuesday. According to family attorney Earll Pott, a public defender will likely be appointed.

Earnest burst into the Chabad of Poway synagogue on the last day of Passover, a major Jewish holiday that celebrates freedom, and opened fire with an assault-style rifle on the crowd of about 100.

He fled when the rifle jammed, according to authorities and witnesses, avoiding an Army combat veteran and an off-duty Border Patrol agent who pursued him. He called 911 to report the shooting and surrendered a short time later.

Lori Kaye, a founding member of the congregation, was killed. Rabbi Yishoel Goldstein was shot in the hands, while Noya Dahan, 8, and her uncle Almog Peretz suffered shrapnel wounds.

Kaye, 60, was remembered for her kindness Monday at a memorial service at the packed synagogue in Poway, a well-to-do suburb north of San Diego.

His manifesto

A manifesto – written by a person identifying himself as John Earnest that was published online shortly before the attack – spewed hatred toward Jews and praised the perpetrators of attacks on mosques in New Zealand that killed 50 people last month and at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue that killed 11 on October 27.

Earnest frequented 8chan, a dark corner of the web where those disaffected by mainstream social media sites often post extremist, racist and violent views.

"I've only been lurking here for a year and half, yet what I've learned here is priceless. It's been an honor," he wrote.

Earnest invites followers to watch the attack live to recommended song list, including "Sloop John B" by The Beach Boys and the "Pokemon Theme Song". He says he planned the synagogue attack for four weeks.

"If you told me even 6 months ago that I would do this I would have been surprised," Earnest wrote.

The FBI said it got tips about a social media post threatening violence against Jews about five minutes before the attack.

The tips to an FBI website and hotline included a link to the anonymous post but did not offer specific information about its author or the location of the threat. The bureau said employees immediately tried to determine who wrote it, but the shooting occurred before they could establish his identity.

A tipster told The Associated Press that he called the FBI tip line at 11:15 because the post linked to a manifesto that said the author was responsible for the mosque arson in Escondido

The tipster, who refused to provide his name because of security concerns, said the call with the FBI lasted four or five minutes. He described the FBI as quick and professional and said he doesn't know what the bureau could have done.

The shooting happened around 11:30.

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