POWAY (CNS) - Friends are mourning the woman who was killed in a shooting at a synagogue in Poway that left three others, including a rabbi, injured and a 19-year-old man in custody for what authorities are calling a hate crime.
Friends and neighbors identified the woman as Lori Gilbert Kaye, 60, of San Diego and said she was trying to protect the rabbi after the suspect, 19- year-old John T. Earnest, also of San Diego, opened fire as about 100 people worshipped at Congregation Chabad synagogue during the last day of Passover, one of the most solemn Jewish observances.
“Lori, you were a jewel in our community, a true Eshet Chayil, a Woman of Valor,” her friend, Audrey Jacobs, said in a Facebook post that was reprinted on the Jewish Journal's website. “You were always running to do a mitzvah (good deed) and generously gave tzedaka (charity) to everyone. Your life was defined by your good deeds.”
Jacobs and other friends said Kaye jumped in front Rabbi Yistoel Goldstein as the gunman opened fire with an AK-15 assault rifle Saturday morning. Goldstein, 57, suffered wounds in the index fingers on both hands, but reportedly continued his sermon.
“Your final good deed was jumping in front of (Rabbi Goldstein) to take the bullet and save his life,” Jacobs wrote. She said Kaye is survived by her husband and a 22-year-old daughter.
Trauma surgeon Michael Katz told NBC San Diego the rabbi was likely to lose one finger, but may keep the other.
A 34-year-old man and an 8-year-old girl were also wounded. The man and Goldstein were being treated at Palomar Medical Center in Poway. The girl was later taken to Rady Children's Hospital. Their names have not been released although Jacobs said the young girl's first name is Noya and that moved with her family to San Diego from the Israeli city of Sderot a few years ago.
The Israeli World News identified the man as Almog Peretz, and described him as a hero for ushering several children to safety amid the gunfire.
“This is sad, but I am originally from Sderot so we know a bit about running from the Kassam rockets,” Peretz told Israel's Channel 12 from his hospital bed. “There were many small kids next to me. I took a little girl who was our neighbor and three nieces of mine and ran. I opened the back gate and we ran with all the children to a building in the back. I hid them in that building.”
Noya's father Israel told Israel Radio that he had moved his family to California a number of years ago after their Sderot home absorbed several rocket shots from Gaza over the years, injuring him once.
“We came from fire to fire,” he said, adding, “It can happen anywhere. [But] we are strong.”
Earnest, who was reportedly on the Dean's List at Cal State San Marcos, apparently posted an “open letter” online shortly before the shooting, taking credit for both the Poway synagogue shooting and a suspected arson fire on March 24 at the Islamic Center of Escondido. The letter makes multiple anti-Semitic references and racist comments.
San Diego County Sheriff William Gore said authorities were working to verify the authenticity of the letter. Investigators couldn't confirm whether the alleged shooter is connected to any white supremacist groups. But the sheriff said Earnest has no prior arrests.
Gore said deputies served warrants for Earnest's home and car as well as the synagogue.
Authorities believe Earnest to be the only suspect, and said there were no further known threats to religious gatherings.
“We encourage our communities to continue with scheduled events and other activities as normal,” the sheriff's department said in a statement Saturday night. “The suspect in the Poway incident today has been captured and we believe he acted alone. Of course, if you have information about any potential threats, we want to hear from you. We have assigned deputies to religious centers throughout the weekend and will continue in our patrols and outreach moving forward.”
The shooting began shortly after 11:20 a.m., when the suspect burst into the Congregation Chabad synagogue and opened fire as services were underway.
His gun apparently malfunctioned sometime during the attack, according to Gore.
An off-duty Border Patrol agent working as a security guard was inside the temple when the shooting began, and he opened fire as the suspect fled, Gore said.
The agent did not strike the suspect, but did hit the suspect's car, authorities said.
Police said the suspect called 911 a short time later and said he had been involved in the shooting.
A San Diego police officer en route to the scene of the shooting spotted the suspect's vehicle and pulled him over nearby, San Diego Police Department Chief David Nisleit said.
The suspect got out of his vehicle with his hands up, and was taken into custody without further incident, Nisleit said.
Gore said the San Diego County Sheriff's Department and the San Diego Police Department will conduct a joint investigation.
FBI San Diego Assistant Special Agent in Charge Omer Meisel said federal agents will work closely with local law enforcement.
California State University San Marcos President Karen S. Haynes acknowledged that Earnest is a student there.
“We are dismayed and disheartened that the alleged shooter now in custody is a CSUSM student,” Haynes said. “CSUSM is working collaboratively with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department to assist and gain more information.
“We extend our deepest condolences to all of the victims, their families, friends and our entire community. We share your grief,” Haynes said. “ This despicable act is entirely against our values as a university. We stand in solidarity with the Jewish community and reject the rhetoric of divisiveness that feeds hatred.”
A night vigil for the shooting victims was held Saturday at Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church.
Poway Mayor Steve Vaus joined other authorities in describing the shooting as a hate crime. It occurred six months to the day after 11 people were killed in a shooting on Oct. 27 at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
“I want you to know this is not Poway,” Vaus said in front of the synagogue. “The Poway I know comes together as we did just a few weeks ago, at an interfaith event. We always walk with our arms around each other, and we will walk through this tragedy with our arms around each other. We have a deep appreciation for those who showed courage at the Chabad, deep appreciation for the law enforcement agencies that responded so quickly. ... Poway will stay strong and we will always be a community that cares for one another.”
Speaking at a rally in Wisconsin on Saturday, President Donald Trump offered his support to the victims of the shooting.
“Tonight America's heart is with the victims of the horrific synagogue shooting in Poway, California. Just happened,” Trump said. “Our entire nation mourns the loss of life, prays for the wounded, and stands in solidarity with the Jewish community. We forcefully condemn the evil of anti- Semitism and hate, which must be defeated. ... And we are grateful to the law- enforcement personnel for their courageous response. Incredible response today by law enforcement. And I especially want to recognize a certain off-duty border patrol agent who bravely returned fire and helped disrupt the attack and saved so many lives. Border patrol!”
“We stand together,” Trump added. “We will all get to the bottom of it. We're going to get to the bottom of a lot of things happening in our country.”
A number of California politicians responded publicly to the shooting as news of it began to spread on Saturday.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom tweeted: “Charleston, Pittsburgh, Quebec, New Zealand -- now our own Poway, California. No one should ever fear going to their place of worship. Hate continues to fuel horrific and cowardice acts of violence across our state, country and world. It must be called out. California stands with Poway.”
Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. Nancy Pelosi, who represents San Francisco in Congress, said she was closely following the incident.
“We remain deeply grateful to first responders & community members working to protect their neighbors,” Pelosi said on Twitter. “We share in the grief of all who have been affected & their families.”
Pelosi's thoughts were echoed by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein.
“Hearing about the shooting at Congregation Chabad in Poway breaks my heart,” Feinstein said in a statement from her office. “My thoughts are with the victims of this horrific attack. It's a fact that we're facing a rise in hate crimes and all of us have a duty to condemn hatred in all its forms whenever we see it.”
California Sen. and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris tweeted: “Yet again, a place of worship is the target of senseless gun violence and hate. Anti-Semitism is real in this country and we must not be silent - enough is enough.”