Worshipper who scared off shooter at California synagogue has North Dakota ties
The shootings on Saturday at the Chabad of Poway synagogue in southern California were acts of hatred and terror. It was frightening and confusing. One person was shot dead and three others were wounded. However, if it wasn’t for the actions of Oscar Stewart, 51, the carnage would have been much worse. Stewart’s quick response was heroic.
Stewart is a former North Dakotan. He lived in the state with his wife and three boys from 2001 to 2006. The first two years he lived in Sheldon, and the last three years he lived in Fargo. He worked as an electrician at Archer Daniels Midland. He was a member of Temple Beth El.
Stewart was also a member of the North Dakota National Guard and spent a year fighting in the Iraq War. Some of that training clearly came in handy during the shootings at the Poway synagogue.
Stewart is a member of the synagogue that sits north of San Diego. Every Saturday he attends worship services there. Last Saturday was to be a day of celebration, the last day of Passover. Stewart was sitting in the back of the sanctuary during the Torah reading when he suddenly heard four gunshots. A gunman wearing a military-style vest with a semiautomatic rifle had started shooting the worshippers. At that point, Stewart’s instincts kicked in, even though he was unarmed.
“I went into the lobby and I saw the gunman,” Stewart said. “I yelled at him with every piece of energy I had. I told him to get down and that I would kill him. I was looking at the barrel of his gun, and he fired two shots at me. He then dropped his gun from firing position. He turned and ran and I chased him.”
The gunman, later identified as John Earnest, 19, was clearly surprised by Stewart’s actions and started to panic. The shooter fled into his nearby car. Stewart continued to run after him.
“He then raised his weapon at me,” Stewart said. “I began punching his car window.”
At that point, off-duty Border Patrol agent Jonathan Morales came to Stewart's assistance.
“He yelled, ‘Clear back. I have a gun,’” Stewart said. Then, Morales fired four shots at the vehicle.
Earnest got away, but Stewart and Morales wrote down his license plate number. Earnest was arrested a short time later along an interstate highway. Prosecutors say when Earnest was apprehended, he was wearing a tactical vest, which contained five magazines and 50 rounds of ammunition.
Stewart then rushed back into the synagogue to help those who were shot. He says he saw Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein with blood coming from his hands.
“I asked him if he was OK. He said he was, and to take care of the others,” Stewart said.
Then Stewart turned his attention to Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60, who was lying face down on the floor. He started performing CPR on her. She didn’t make it.
“Lori was a genuinely kind woman,” Stewart said. “She reminded me of North Dakotans. She was kind and sweet.”
Stewart has a hard time comprehending how and why the shootings took place.
“After I left Iraq, I never thought I would hear shots like that again, especially in a house of worship in the U.S.,” he said.
Stewart’s bravery did not go unnoticed. He was commended by the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, and today he will meet President Donald Trump in Washington along with Rabbi Goldstein and Border Patrol agent Morales.
Stewart risked his life to protect others. His actions clearly saved the lives of many people. Still, he’s reluctant to accept the credit he clearly deserves.
“I don’t want to say I’m a hero," Stewart said. “I just acted. I didn’t think about anything. I thank God that God gave me the courage to do what I did.”