A judge has ordered a former college student to stand trial for murder and attempted murder for allegedlyon April 27, killing one woman and injuring three people. The ruling came after hours of dramatic testimony to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to try 20-year-old John T. Earnest.
If convicted of murder, Earnest could be eligible for the death penalty due to a special circumstances allegation that he was motivated by hate. A prosecutor says no decision has been made on whether to seek capital punishment. Earnest has pleaded not guilty.
Prosecutors on Thursday played a 12-minute recording of the suspected gunman telling a 911 dispatcher that he had just "shot up" a synagogue to save white people from Jews, describing terms for a peaceful surrender and scolding law enforcement for taking too much time to find him in his parked car.
The caller gave details of where he was waiting for police in his Honda Civic. He promised to leave his AR-15 assault rifle on the passenger seat and get out of the car with a supply of bullets hanging on the chest of his vest. As the caller spoke about his hatred of Jews, another dispatcher steered him back to describing where he was.
The 911 recording was played publicly for the first time during the dramatic day in court that included surveillance video of the shooting and additional testimony.
Almog Peretz, 34, who had been attending the synagogue while visiting his sister from Israel, testified Friday through an interpreter he and his 8-year-old niece were struck by shrapnel or rounds while fleeing the gunman. He recalled "bullets flying all around me" before he ushered children playing in an outdoor playground to a rabbi's nearby house, reports the San Diego Union-Tribune.
"I saw his face," Peretz said. "He was standing like this with his weapon. Like a soldier."
The shooting occurred on the last day of Passover.
Oscar Stewart, an electrician who is married with a stepdaughter, spoke publicly for the first time about confronting Earnest as shots rang from the lobby.
"People were falling over each other. It was chaos," he said. "I screamed (to everyone) 'Get down! Get out here.'"
Stewart, 51, was standing toward the back of the service when shots rang. He said he took three or four steps to flee then turned around for reasons he still can't explain, perhaps "a sense of duty." He saw the shooter in the lobby fire two rounds and rushed toward him.
"He was firing in front of me." Stewart said. "I was paying attention to the rifle."
As the gunman struggled to reload, Stewart said he relied on combat training to try to distract him from his plan of attack.
"I told him I was going to kill him," said Stewart, who served in the Persian Gulf War as a Navy bomb disposal expert. "I screamed it out really loud. I kept screaming at him."
Stewart walked across the street after the suspect fled, as shown in the surveillance video and banged on the side of his car. He worried the shooter might attack a church next door or a grocery store down the street.
The suspect scrawled the name of a man accused of shootings at two mosques in New Zealand that killed 51 people earlier this year outside the synagogue, according to authorities.
Earnest bought a Smith & Wesson AR-15 rifle from a San Diego gun shop the day before the synagogue shooting, according to federal filings. Officials said he bought the gun legally.
Earnest will also be tried for arson in connection with an earlier fire at a nearby mosque. Seven people on a spiritual retreat were sleeping when the blaze broke out in at the mosque in Escondido, prosecutors say. The worshipers awoke to flames and managed to extinguish the fire.