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A gunman walked into a southern California synagogue crowded with Sabbath worshippers on Saturday and opened fire with an assault-style rifle, killing one woman inside and wounding three others in a hate crime carried out on the last day of Passover, authorities said.

The suspect, 19-year-old John Earnest, fled the scene by car and was arrested a short time later when he pulled over and surrendered to police, authorities said.

There were indications an AR-type assault weapon might have malfunctioned after Earnest fired numerous rounds inside the Congregation Chabad synagogue in the town of Poway, California, about 23 miles (37 km) north of downtown San Diego, Sheriff William Gore said.

President Donald Trump and other elected officials decried what they called an anti-Semitic attack exactly six months since 11 people were killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue in the deadliest assault on Jews in US history. 

Gore told reporters that four people were struck by gunfire and taken to Palomar Medical Center, where one of the victims, an “older woman”, died. The three other patients – “two adult males” and a “female juvenile” – were listed in stable condition, Gore said. The identities of the victims were not given.

Hate crime

Poway Mayor Steve Vaus, speaking from a police command centre, characterised Saturday’s shooting as a “hate crime“, saying his assessment was based on statements uttered by the gunman when he entered the synagogue.

Nothing else was disclosed about a possible motive. But Gore said investigators were reviewing the suspect’s social media posts and “his open letter”.

Earnest has no criminal record, but investigators were looking into a claim he made in an online manifesto about setting a fire at a mosque in nearby Escondido last month, Gore said. There was damage but no injuries.

Speaking with reporters at the White House, Trump said, “My deepest sympathies go to the people that were affected.” He added that “it looks like a hate crime” and that authorities will “get to the bottom of it”.

San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, left, walks past the Chabad of Poway Synagogue [Denis Poroy/AP Photo] 

The attack occurred shortly before 11:30am local time (18:30GMT) in Poway, a suburb of about 50,000 residents, when the suspect walked into the synagogue and started shooting, Gore said. As he was making his getaway, an off-duty US Border Patrol agent opened fire on the suspect, striking the vehicle but apparently missing the suspect, according to Gore.

The gunman was arrested a short time later when he peacefully surrendered to police. 

A San Diego officer was en route to the shooting scene when he overheard a California Highway Patrol (CHP) radio dispatch “of a suspect who had called into CHP to report that he was just involved in this shooting and his location”, San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit recounted.

“The officer was actually on the freeway and he clearly saw the suspect in his vehicle. The suspect pulled over and jumped out of his car with his hands up and was immediately taken into custody,” Nisleit said.

He said the assault-style rifle believed to be the murder weapon was found on the front passenger seat of the car.

‘You can’t break us’

Local television channel KGTV 10News said the synagogue was hosting a holiday celebration beginning at 11 am local time and due to culminate in a final Passover meal at 7pm . Authorities said about 100 people were inside the temple, where Saturday services marking the Jewish Sabbath would have been under way or have just concluded.

San Diego television station KGTV reported a woman whose husband was still inside the synagogue as saying the rabbi was among those shot. 

Minoo Anvari, an Iranian refugee who said her husband was attending services inside when gunshots rang out, told KUSI-TV the wounded included a female friend and the rabbi, who was shot in the hand. “We are united. You can’t break us.,” Anvari told KUSI.

Cantor Caitlin Bromberg of Ner Tamid Synagogue, down the street from the shooting scene, said her congregation learned of the shooting at the end of their Passover services and that they were heading to Chabad of Poway to show support and help.

“We are horrified and upset, and we want them to know we are thinking of them,” Bromberg told The Los Angeles Times, adding that she has not heard from Chabad of Poway leadership because they would not normally use the phone during the Sabbath.

“They would only do that on emergency basis, if they do it at all,” Bromberg told the newspaper.

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