California gunman gets life without parole for synagogue murder, mosque arson

A makeshift memorial is placed a block away from the Chabad of Poway synagogue where one person was killed in California on Apr 27, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

LOS ANGELES (REUTERS) - A man who admitted to killing one worshipper and wounding three others in a shooting spree inside a California synagogue about a month after setting fire to a nearby mosque was sentenced on Thursday (Sept 30) to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

John T. Earnest, 22, pleaded guilty in July to a single count of murder, three counts of attempted murder and a charge of committing arson in a place of worship, in a deal with local prosecutors sparing him from possibly facing the death penalty.

The defendant was sentenced in a San Diego courtroom to a life prison term less than two weeks after pleading guilty to federal hate-crime charges stemming from the same two attacks in 2019.

He faces an additional life term when he is sentenced in the federal case in United States District Court on Dec 28.

Earnest opened fire with an assault-style rifle at the Chabad of Poway synagogue north of San Diego on April 27, 2019, during Sabbath prayers on the last day of the weeklong Jewish Passover holiday. He was 19 at the time.

A 60-year-old member of the congregation, Ms Lori Gilbert-Kaye, was killed and three others were wounded in the attack, including the rabbi, who was shot in the hand and lost an index finger.

After the gunman's weapon apparently jammed, he was chased from the temple by a former Army sergeant in the congregation and sped away in a car, escaping an off-duty US Border Patrol agent who shot at the getaway vehicle but missed the suspect.

Earnest later stopped at a shopping centre, called the emergency 911 number to report he had committed the shooting, and waited for police to arrive to arrest him.

The authorities later identified Earnest as the author of a rambling, violently anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim manifesto found posted on the internet under his name minutes before the shooting had begun.

He stated in the post that he had planned the synagogue rampage for months and claimed responsibility for a predawn arson attack weeks earlier that damaged the Islamic Center of Escondido, a nearby town, although no one was injured in the fire.

Earnest also professed in the letter to have drawn inspiration from the gunman who killed 50 people at two mosques in New Zealand around that time, and he made reference to a shooting that took 11 lives the previous October at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

San Diego County Superior Court Judge Peter Deddeh denied Earnest an opportunity to address the court, as is customary before sentencing, so as to avoid providing "a political forum for him to start making white supremacist or racist statements", the Los Angeles City News Service (CNS) reported.

Several of Ms Gilbert-Kaye's loved ones spoke during the hearing, including her daughter, Hannah Kaye, who called white supremacy "an epidemic that thrives all over this country and overseas", according to CNS.

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