POWAY, California — The FBI said Monday that it received tips on a threatening social media post about five minutes before a gunman burst into a Southern California synagogue and opened fire with an assault-style rifle, killing a woman and wounding a rabbi and two Israelis.
The tips to the FBI’s website and phone number included a link to the anonymous post but did not offer specific information about its author or location of the threat. The FBI said employees immediately tried to determine who wrote the post, but the shooting occurred before they could establish his identity.
“The FBI thanks the alert citizens who saw and reported the post,” the agency said.
One of the tipsters 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 a mosque arson in the city of Escondido last month. He says he found online that the mosque attack had happened and feared the new threat was real.
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 after. He described the FBI as quick and professional and said he doesn’t know what they could have done.
The shooting happened around 11:30 a.m. Moments afterward, police arrested 19-year-old John T. Earnest of San Diego. He is being held on suspicion of murder and attempted murder.
The online manifesto written by a person identifying himself as John Earnest was an anti-Jewish screed posted about an hour before the attack. The poster described himself as a nursing school student and 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 October 27.
In the manifesto he alludes to carrying out a shooting attack against Jews but does not specify where.
About 100 congregants were worshiping at the Chabad of Poway near San Diego on the last day of the Jewish holiday of Passover, which celebrates freedom, when the gunman killed Lori Kaye, 60. He also wounded the synagogue’s rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein; Noya Dahan, 8; and her uncle Almog Peretz.
Goldstein said he was preparing for a service and heard a loud sound, turned around and a saw a young man wearing sunglasses standing in front of him with a rifle.
“I couldn’t see his eyes. I couldn’t see his soul,” Goldstein said. He raised his hands and lost one of his fingers in the shooting.
And then, Goldstein said, “miraculously the gun jammed.”
In the moments that followed, Goldstein said he wrapped his bloodied hand in a prayer shawl and addressed congregants gathered outside the building, vowing to stay strong in the face of the deadly attack targeting his community.
“We are a Jewish nation that will stand tall. We will not let anyone take us down. Terrorism like this will not take us down,” Goldstein recalled telling the community.
Authorities said Earnest had no previous contact with law enforcement and may face a hate crime charge in addition to homicide charges when he’s arraigned later this week. He was being held without bail, and it was unclear if he had an attorney.
Police searched Earnest’s house and said he was also being investigated in connection with an arson attack on a mosque in nearby Escondido, California, on March 24.
There were indications an AR-type assault weapon might have malfunctioned after the gunman fired numerous rounds inside, San Diego County Sheriff William Gore said. An off-duty Border Patrol agent fired at the shooter as he fled, missing him but striking the getaway vehicle, the sheriff said.
Shortly after fleeing, Earnest called 911 to report the shooting, San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said. When an officer reached him on a roadway, “the suspect pulled over, jumped out of his car with his hands up and was immediately taken into custody,” he said.
Gore said authorities were reviewing Earnest’s social media posts, including what he described as a “manifesto.” There was no known threat after Earnest was arrested, but authorities boosted patrols at places of worship Saturday and again on Sunday as a precaution, police said.
“It was a hate crime, no doubt about it,” national security adviser John Bolton said on “Fox News Sunday.” He said investigators have not seen any connection between the suspect and other extremist groups.
California State University, San Marcos, confirmed that Earnest was a student who was on the dean’s list and said the school was “dismayed and disheartened” that he was suspected in “this despicable act.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.