POWAY, Calif. (AP) — The FBI said it got tips about a social media post threatening violence against Jews just minutes before a gunman killed a worshipper and wounded three others at a Southern California synagogue — an attack that makes him “part of the history of evil that has been perpetrated on Jewish people for centuries,” the suspect’s family said Monday.
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.
John T. Earnest, 19, was charged with murder and attempted murder in Saturday’s attack as well as arson in connection with a nearby mosque fire last month. He was expected in court Tuesday.
His 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.” They said they were shocked and mystified.
“Our son’s actions were informed by people we do not know, and ideas we do not hold,” the family said in its first public comments.
They said they were cooperating with investigators to help “uncover many details of the path that he took to this evil and despicable act.” They do not plan to provide their son with legal representation, according to their attorney, Earll Potts. A public defender will likely be appointed.
Earnest burst into the Chabad of Poway synagogue Saturday 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.
Lori Kaye, a founding member of the congregation, was killed. Rabbi Yishoel Goldstein was shot in the hand, 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.
Earnest fled when the gun jammed, calling 911 to report the shooting and surrendering a short time later, authorities said.
He was a star scholar, athlete and pianist whose embrace of white supremacy and anti-Semitism has dumbfounded the people closest to him.
Earnest 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 and swam on the varsity team.
His father, John A. Earnest, is a popular physics teacher at the public high school he attended in San Diego.
Owen Cruise, 20, saw the younger Earnest every day during senior year at Mt. Carmel High School, when they were in calculus and physics together. They were also members of the school’s amateur radio club.
Earnest was a nationally recognized pianist who brought audiences to their feet when he played at talent shows, Cruise said. He did a rendition of “Pirates of the Caribbean” and played Chopin and Beethoven.
“Crowds would be cheering his name,” Cruise said Monday. “Everybody loved him.”
Earnest showed no signs of harboring dark thoughts or racist views, Cruise said, adding that he had friends who were Jewish and black.
“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.”
His father worked at the school for 31 years and 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.
Cruise, now a sophomore at the University of California, San Diego, said Earnest lived at home and saw his parents every day.
“They only raised him to be the best man he could be,” Cruise said.
A tipster told The Associated Press that he called the FBI tip line at 11:15 a.m. Saturday because the post linked to a manifesto that said the author was responsible for the mosque arson in Escondido. He says he found online that had the mosque attack had happened and feared the new threat was real.
The online manifesto, written by a person identifying himself as John Earnest, was an anti-Jewish screed that praised the suspects accused of carrying out attacks on mosques in New Zealand that killed 50 people last month and at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue that killed 11 on Oct. 27.
The tipster, who refused to provide his name because of security concerns, said the call with the FBI lasted four or five minutes and the shooting happened soon afterward. 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 a.m. Earnest’s gun jammed and an off-duty Border Patrol agent fired at him as he fled, missing him but striking the getaway vehicle, authorities said.
Oscar Stewart, an Army combat veteran, rushed the suspect just before the agent opened fire, authorities said.
“This is an evil person whose religion is hate,” Stewart, 51, told KGTV in San Diego.
Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo in Washington, R.J. Rico in Atlanta and Amy Taxin in Poway contributed to this report.