2 days, 2 hateful acts: FBI probes Southern California synagogue shooting, Bay Area car attack

The FBI is investigating last week’s suspected anti-Muslim road attack in Sunnyvale that left a teenage girl in a coma as a hate crime, while hundreds of miles to the south, federal agents are just beginning their grim task in the wake of the deadly Passover synagogue shootings in Poway near San Diego.

Police say Isaiah Joel Peoples, 34, an Army veteran and defense finance auditor returning from a meal run for his Bible study, hurtled his car into the crowded crosswalk at a busy intersection because he thought the pedestrians were Muslim.

Investigators say John T. Earnest, 19, a college student from suburban San Diego, fomented a hatred of Jewish people, then spent the last six months crafting the plot that left one woman dead and three people wounded, including a rabbi.

A woman, Lori Kaye, was killed shielding the rabbi of Chabad Poway. It was the second mass shooting in six months at a Jewish house of worship following the Pittsburgh Tree of Life massacre that left 11 dead.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom responded to the acts – one north, one south – Sunday on Twitter: “Two days. Two acts of violence and hatred,” Newsom wrote. “An attack against any community is an attack against our entire state – who we are and what we stand for. Our country has to be better than this.”

As investigators in two California communities continue their probe into horrific acts apparently motivated by hate, a social scientist sees a growing tribalism nationwide and deepening divisions in a changing Golden State as possible factors: “We are very polarized, but we are also entrenched in that polarization. We’re not only divided, but entrenched in that division in ways we haven’t seen in decades,” said Brian Levin, professor of criminal justice and director of the Center for the Study of Hate & Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

“Our connections to communities are more attenuated. There’s a distrust in the institutions that bind us together.” Political fissures and changes in ethnic and religious makeup also are powerful factors, he said.

“We’re seeing dramatic shifts demographically, culturally, socially, politically. It’s a place where the fissures are quite evident. California is a place of shifts and divisions,” Levin continued. “We’re a touchstone for everything: We’re a border state, we’re Silicon Valley; we’re a place for both internal and external migration. Social media has played a role, too. It’s no accident that newer hate groups have emerged here.”

Earnest, 19, who lives in a San Diego suburb and attends California State University, San Marcos, according to news reports, was arrested after the shooting. He is being held without bail in San Diego County custody on suspicion of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted murder.

San Diego County sheriff’s officials in a statement said they have “no indication” that Earnest was linked to an organized group. “We believe he acted alone and without outside support in carrying out the attack,” San Diego County sheriff’s officials said, adding that investigators are “continuing to explore every avenue to bring out the facts in this case.”

In a statement Sunday, FBI San Diego’s field office said it “stands with the congregation of Chabad Poway and share with the community’s grief” while offering condolences to Kaye’s friends, family and the Jewish community.

On Friday, Army veteran and Sacramento State graduate Peoples, 34, was formally arraigned on eight attempted murder charges in a San Jose courtroom after allegedly targeting pedestrians at a Sunnyvale crosswalk a week ago Tuesday because he thought they were Muslim.

A 13-year-old Sunnyvale Middle School student struck in the crosswalk remains in a coma. A portion of her skull was removed to alleviate what Santa Clara County investigators said was “severe brain swelling.” The girl’s father, Rajesh Narayan, and her 9-year-old brother were among the eight injured, the San Jose Mercury News reported. They and other victims remain in Bay Area hospitals, their arms and legs broken in what law enforcement say was a targeted attack.

The incident, along with a string of other attacks targeting Muslims and those perceived to be, have chapters of CAIR – the Council on American-Islamic Relations – on heightened alert. Last Tuesday’s apparent attack along with the the bloody Christchurch attacks in New Zealand, “will have many of us looking over our shoulders and urging mosque leaders to assess security plans,” Zahra Billoo, CAIR-San Francisco Bay Area’s executive director, told the San Francisco Chronicle on Friday, as the month of Ramadan nears.

Peoples faces life in prison if convicted.

“Based on our investigation, new evidence shows that the defendant intentionally targeted victims based on their race and his belief that they were of the Muslim faith,” Pham Ngo, chief of Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety, said Friday.

Ngo called San Francisco federal agents in the hours after the April 23 collision. Last weekend, the FBI said it has opened its probe into the apparent attack.

“The FBI San Francisco Field Office has opened a federal hate crime investigation into the incident that occurred in Sunnyvale on April 23, 2019,” officials said in a brief statement. “As this is an ongoing investigation, we are not able to comment further at this time.”

Peoples, whose mother and family members have said he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from Iraq, remains held without bail in Santa Clara County custody pending his next court date.

Peoples, housed on a high-security floor at Santa Clara County jail, had been “non-communicative” in the days following his arrest, but attorney Chuck Smith said he spoke with his client for approximately two hours Saturday.

Smith on Monday said Peoples was treated at a Menlo Park Veterans Administration facility and said he has ordered VA records to look into Peoples’ medical history and “other co-occurring issues.” Smith also awaits the evidence culled from Peoples’ Sunnyvale apartment that led FBI investigators to launch a hate crime probe along with local police.

Santa Clara County prosecutors have not yet added hate crime allegations to the eight counts of attempted murder Peoples faces, and Smith said Monday it was “too early” to make a decision on whether he plans to introduce Peoples’ mental state as a defense.

Peoples returns May 16 to Santa Clara Superior Court. By then, Smith said, “we’ll know a lot more about the course this case is going to take.”

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