San Diego

Synagogue Shooting, Mosque Arson Suspect Faces Federal Charges

John Timothy Earnest, 19, will appear in court next week to face new 109 new federal counts in connection with the Poway synagogue shooting and the Escondido mosque arson

The man in custody in connection with the deadly shooting at a Poway synagogue and arson at an Escondido mosque faces 109 federal counts, officials announced Thursday.

John Timothy Earnest, 19, has pleaded not guilty to multiple criminal counts including murder and attempted murder - both with a hate-crime special circumstance and gun allegations - as well as arson of a house of worship. 

The first two charges are in connection with the shooting inside Chabad of Poway on April 27, the last day of Passover. Earnest is accused of walking into the crowded synagogue with a rifle and ammo and opening fire. 

On Thursday, a federal complaint was filed charging Earnest with 109 new criminal counts including 54 counts of obstruction of free exercise of religion and 54 counts of hate crime acts.

“That’s one count for every person in the synagogue on April 27 including 12 children,” U.S. Attorney Robert Brewer said. “Each of these counts is death penalty eligible.” 

One member of the congregation was killed and the rabbi and two other people were injured.  The complaint states there were 13 children in the synagogue on the day of the shooting.

Earnest is also accused of setting fire to the Dar-ul-Arqam mosque in Escondido on March 24 before early morning prayer. 

In the federal complaint, investigators say that the mosque surveillance video showed a suspect arriving in the same type of vehicle the defendant used on the day of the shooting at the synagogue.

Earnest has already been arraigned on criminal charges in San Diego Superior Court but he now faces parallel federal charges. 

“We will not allow our community members to be hunted in their houses of worship where they should feel free and safe to exercise their right to practice their religion,” Brewer said.

According to the federal complaint, Earnest has been charged with 54 counts obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death and bodily injury and involving attempt to kill, use of a dangerous weapon. He will also face 54 hate crime acts charges and damage to religious real property involving use of a dangerous weapon or fire.

He faces one federal charge of damage to religious property by use of fire. 

Investigators say in the complaint that the defendant made many anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim statements and stated his only regret was that he did not kill more people. 

The document also describes the rifle used in the synagogue shooting as a Smith & Wesson Model M&P 15 Sports II semi-automatic rifle. 

Investigators say Earnest bought the firearm from a federally licensed dealer and picked up the rifle on April 26. 

A new state law that took effect January 1, limits firearm purchases to adults age 21 and older.

That legislation includes two exceptions: someone over 18 with a valid hunting license can buy a gun. Law enforcement and active or honorably discharged military members aged 18-20 can also buy weapons.

Information available about the suspect indicates he was not a member of the military and has not worked in law enforcement.

The San Diego County District Attorney previously indicated, but would not confirm, that Earnest might have a hunting license, NBC 7 Investigates learned that the list of state residents who have hunting and/or fishing licenses in confidential.

One of the attorneys handling the federal case did not answer a reporter's question asking if the defendant had a hunting license.

“There is no allegation that the defendant violated federal law when he acquired the rifle that he used in the violent attack on the synagogue,” said U.S. Attorney Shane Harrigan. 

Officials expect both the federal and state criminal cases to proceed at the same time.

Earnest will appear in federal court on the new charges on May 14. 

Police said the suspect left a message in graffiti in the mosque’s parking lot. EPD did not reveal what the graffiti said, only noting that it referenced the New Zealand shooting that happened the week before.

In a manifesto published just before the Poway synagogue shooting tied to Earnest, the author praised the suspects responsible for the New Zealand mosque and Pittsburgh synagogue shootings and added they were the inspiration for the planned shooting in Poway.

The synagogue shooting and the mosque arson were less than 9 miles apart.

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