San Diego

Poway Synagogue Shooting: Heroic Tales, Messages of Love Emerge

All three people wounded in a shooting at a Poway synagogue on Saturday attended a vigil in support of the Jewish community on Sunday. The suspected gunman's family said they were "shocked and saddened" by the attack

Messages of love and heroism have emerged from tragedy as hundreds gathered at a park less than a mile from where a gunman unloaded rounds of ammunition on a Jewish congregation, killing a long-time synagogue member and wounding three others.

"It's all about peace, all about love, and it's all about kindness," said Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, one of the injured, who was moved to tears by the showing of support at Valle Verde Community Park on Sunday. "Wow, wow, wow. Look at love."

In attendance were rabbis from Chabad houses across the country, Poway Mayor Steve Vaus and all three surviving shooting victims: Rabbi Goldstein, 57, whose index finger was blown off in the attack; 34-year-old Almog Peretz, who is being heralded a hero for shepherding more than a half-dozen children away from gunfire; and his niece, 8-year-old Noya Dahan, who was struck by shrapnel. 

The rabbi's friend of 33 years, Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60, who helped him secure funding to open the synagogue in 1986, was killed. A funeral for Kaye was held at Chabad of Poway on Monday. 

And while the members gathered at the park mourned the loss of a dear member of the Jewish community, they celebrated the heroism that witnesses say averted greater tragedy. About 100 worshipers were gathered at the synagogue to celebrate the end of Passover when the attack happened.

"[Dahan] was wounded yesterday, and tonight she's here with us. That is bravery," Goldstein screamed over cheers from the crowd. "Almog was shot in his leg, and he's also here tonight. And he saved a room filled with children, so he's brave and a hero." 

Peretz said his thought at the time was not bravery but that someone had to lead the children out of the synagogue. 

"It's kids. It's kids," he told NBC News. "Because the kids, they stand in shock. They're like frozen, they stand. I'm scared they'll run the wrong way. I tell them no, this way this way and i scream." 

As Peretz was working to get people out of the building, another congregant ran toward gunfire but Oscar Stewart wouldn't call himself a hero.

"All I remember is everybody was running. Heard the gunshots, everybody ran out." Stewart told NBC 7. "I ran to fire, that's what I did. I didn't plan it, I didn't think about it. It's just what I did."

Stewart, an Army veteran, said he thinks his military training is what called him to action. He shouted curse words at the gunman as he ran towards him. 

"I yelled at him very loud. I have a very loud voice... and he looked at me and I must've scared him because he dropped his weapon and then I turned and then he ran away," Stewart said. 

He said he doesn't know if his actions stopped the gunfire — there were reports from witnesses that the gunman's assault-style rifle jammed — but at that point the shooting stopped. 

Stewart chased the shooter until he got to a car and turned the ignition, he said. The gunman went for his weapon again and Stewart struck the car to scare him off. 

At that point a U.S. Border Patrol officer Johnathan Morales emerged from the synagogue and shouted for the Army vet to step back because he had a weapon, Stewart said. 

"Johnathan pursued him and was able to discharge his weapon and got the car a few times," Rabbi Goldstein said. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said they were aware their agent was at the synagogue amid the shooting.

"We have learned that one of our own off-duty Border Patrol agents was present and took actions that may have prevented additional loss of life. CBP will fully support our law enforcement partners who are investigating," the agency said in a written statement. 

According to Goldstein, Morales was a newer member of the congregation and would travel nearly four hours from El Centro to pray with the temple. 

John T. Earnest, a graduate of Mount Carmel High School and Cal State San Marcos attendee — was taken into custody by a San Diego police officer who was en route to the scene and spotted the suspect vehicle, SDPD Chief David Nisleit said.

Earnest does not have a criminal history and has no apparent connection with white supremacist groups, according to San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore. He faces one count of murder and three counts of attempted murder for the shooting.

In the hours leading up to the shooting, a person identifying himself as John Earnest posted an open letter on a social media channel that was filled with racist rants and quotes from the Bible.

The poster said he planned to livestream the shooting on Facebook, though there was no link to a livestream on his Facebook page, NBC News reported. The account has since been deactivated. 

The FBI said Monday it received tips about a threatening social media post through its website and by phone about five minutes before the attack, The Associated Press reported. The shooting took place before FBI workers were able to identify who wrote the post.

Earnest is also accused of setting fire to a mosque in nearby Esondido last month, according to charging documents filed Monday, which the social media poster had confessed to online.

Mayor Steve Vaus has called the shooting a hate crime.

Earnest's family said in a statement to NBC 7 Monday that their son is now part of a "history of evil." 

"We are shocked and deeply saddened by the terrible attack on the Chabad of Poway synagogue," the family said. "But our sadness pales in comparison to the grief and anguish our son has caused for so many innocent people. He has killed and injured the faithful who were gathered in a sacred place on a sacred day. To our great shame, he is now part of the history of evil that has been perpetrated on Jewish people for centuries."

How Earnest "was attracted to such darkness is a terrifying mystery" to the family, their statement said.

The San Diego County Sheriff's Department said Earnest may be charged with a hate crime in addition to homicide charges when he's arraigned later this week. 

Outside the synagogue, a growing memorial of flowers and signs was juxtaposed next to lines of yellow police tape, which blocked worshipers and visitors from approaching the building where the deadly shooting took place. 

GoFundMe page was created Saturday night to raise money to help pay for "any necessary medical operations for the victims, funeral services, synagogue reparations or anything else the synagogue would need assistance with.

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