Accused California gunman pleads not guilty in synagogue murder, mosque arson

A crowd watches on screen the funeral for Lori Gilbert-Kaye, the sole fatality of the Saturday synagogue shooting at the Congregation Chabad synagogue in Poway, north of San Diego, California, U.S. April 29, 2019. REUTERS/John Gastaldo

By Jennifer McEntee

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) – A 19-year-old man accused of killing one worshipper and wounding three others in a shooting spree in a California synagogue pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to murder and attempted-murder charges in an attack prosecutors are treating as a hate crime.

John Earnest, arrested shortly after Saturday’s bloodshed at the Chabad of Poway synagogue north of San Diego, also pleaded not guilty to a single count of arson on a house of worship stemming from a nearby mosque that was set on fire in March.

Appearing behind a glass partition for his arraignment in San Diego County Superior Court on Tuesday afternoon, Earnest stood expressionless and spoke faintly as he gave one-word answers to procedural questions put to him by the judge.

The lanky defendant – a nursing student enrolled at California State University at San Marcos – wore dark-rimmed glasses with his hair combed straight forward.

Ordering him to remain held without bail, Judge Joseph Brannigan said Earnest would pose “an obvious and extraordinary risk” to the public if he were to be released pending trial.

The proceeding was attended by six Hasidic Jewish men who sat in the front row of the courtroom, dressed in the traditional dark garb of the Jewish ultra-Orthodox faithful.

Authorities said Earnest stalked into the Poway synagogue during Sabbath prayers on the last day of the week-long Jewish Passover holiday and opened fire with an assault-style rifle, killing 60-year-old worshipper Lori Gilbert-Kaye

Three others were wounded in the attack, including the rabbi, who was shot in the hand and lost an index finger.

John Earnest, accused in the fatal shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, stands in court during an arraignment hearing in San Diego, California, U.S., April 30, 2019. Nelvin C. Cepeda/Pool via REUTERS

John Earnest, accused in the fatal shooting at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, stands in court during an arraignment hearing in San Diego, California, U.S., April 30, 2019. Nelvin C. Cepeda/Pool via REUTERS

RAMBLING MANIFESTO

The gunman, whose weapon apparently jammed, was chased out of the temple by a former Army sergeant in the congregation, then sped away in a car, escaping an off-duty U.S. Border Patrol agent who shot at the getaway vehicle but missed the suspect. Earnest pulled over and surrendered to police soon afterward.

Authorities said later they believed Earnest was the author of a rambling, violently anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim “manifesto” found posted on the internet under his name.

In it, the writer claimed responsibility for a pre-dawn arson fire on March 24 that damaged the Islamic Center of Escondido, a town about 15 miles (24 km) north of Poway, and professed to have drawn his inspiration from the gunman who killed 50 people at two mosques earlier that month in New Zealand.

Saturday’s bloodshed near San Diego came six months to the day after 11 worshippers were fatally shot at a Pittsburgh synagogue in a massacre that ranks as the deadliest ever on American Jewry. The accused gunman in that attack was arrested.

Authorities said Earnest had no prior criminal record.

Besides the charge of committing arson at a place of worship, he is charged with one count of murder and three counts of attempted murder. The criminal complaint, filed on Monday, also alleges the synagogue shooting was perpetrated as a hate crime. His public defender entered not guilty pleas to all charges on his behalf during Tuesday’s hearing.

If convicted, he would face life in prison without parole, or the death penalty, the district attorney’s office said.

District Attorney Summer Stephan told reporters afterward Earnest had legally purchased the murder weapon, although current California law generally prohibits rifles and shotguns from being sold to anyone under 21. The state’s legal age limit for such firearms was raised from 18 starting this year.

In addition to the murder weapon, Stephan said, police found five loaded ammunition magazines and another 50 rounds of bullets in Earnest’s vehicle when he was arrested.

(Reporting by Jennifer McEntee in San Diego; Additional reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Peter Szekely in New York; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)

California synagogue mourns woman who ‘took the bullet’ in weekend shooting

A candlelight vigil is held at Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church for victims of a shooting incident at the Congregation Chabad synagogue in Poway, north of San Diego, California, U.S. April 27, 2019. REUTERS/John Gastaldo

By Joseph Ax and Alex Dobuzinskis

(Reuters) – The woman who was killed in a deadly shooting at a Southern California synagogue will be buried on Monday after being hailed as a hero, as police continue to investigate the motive of the 19-year-old suspect.

Lori Gilbert Kaye, 60, had attended services at Chabad of Poway in suburban San Diego on Saturday, the last day of the weeklong Jewish holiday of Passover, to honor her recently deceased mother. Her daughter, Hannah, and her husband, Howard, were with her.

She was one of four people shot, and the only one killed, when a gunman stormed in with an assault-style rifle, six months to the day after 11 worshippers were killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue in the deadliest attack on American Jewry. Police are investigating the incident as a hate crime.

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was shot in both hands during the attack and lost a finger, described seeing Kaye’s lifeless body on the floor, as her husband tried to resuscitate her before fainting.

“It’s the most heart-wrenching sight I could have seen,” Goldstein told reporters on Sunday. “Lori took the bullet for all of us … She died to protect all of us.”

The gunman, identified by police as John Earnest, fled after his weapon jammed and eventually called police in order to surrender.

Earnest, who is being held without bail, appears to have authored an online manifesto in which he claimed to have set a nearby mosque on fire last month and drawn inspiration from mass shooting at two mosques in New Zealand that killed 50 people in March.

Local and federal authorities also are examining Earnest’s possible involvement in the March 24 pre-dawn arson fire at the Islamic Center of Escondido, about 15 miles (24 km) north of Poway, Gore said.

Kaye, one of the synagogue’s founding members more than three decades ago, was a deeply caring member of the community, her friends said. When one congregant developed breast cancer, Kaye drove her to every appointment and helped take care of her children, Goldstein said.

“She is a person of unconditional love,” Goldstein said.

In a Facebook post, a friend, Audrey Jacobs, called her a “woman of valor” whose final act was to protect others.

“You were always running to do a mitzvah (good deed) and gave tzedaka (charity) to everyone,” she wrote.

Another close friend, Roneet Lev, said on CNN that Kaye’s life was defined by giving, whether money to charities, greeting cards to friends or a bagel and coffee to a homeless person.

“She is the symbol of random acts of kindness,” Lev said on CNN. “She’s had ups and downs in her life like all of us, but no matter what, in her darkest days – and she’s had trauma in her life – she always, always looked at the positive.”

Her funeral will take place at the synagogue on Monday afternoon.

Earnest is scheduled to appear in a San Diego court on Wednesday. Authorities believe he acted alone.

The other two wounded victims were Noya Dahan, 9, and her uncle, Almog Peretz, 34, both Israeli citizens. They were released from the hospital after getting hit by shrapnel.

Dahan’s family moved to the United States in search of a safer life after their home was repeatedly shelled by Palestinian rockets.

At a vigil on Sunday, Dahan rode on her father’s shoulders, wrapped in an Israeli flag, as people cheered.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax in New York, and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Trott)

First asylum seekers returned from Mexico for U.S. court hearings

Honduran migrant Ariel, 19, who is waiting for his court hearing for asylum seekers returned to Mexico to wait out their legal proceedings under a new policy change by the U.S. government, is pictured after an interview with Reuters in Tijuana, Mexico March 18, 2019. Picture taken March 18, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Duenes

By Lizbeth Diaz and Mica Rosenberg

TIJUANA/NEW YORK (Reuters) – A group of asylum seekers sent back to Mexico was set to cross the border on Tuesday for their first hearings in U.S. immigration court in an early test of a controversial new policy from the Trump administration.

The U.S. program, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), turns people seeking protection in the United States around to wait out their U.S. court proceedings in Mexican border towns. Some 240 people – including families – have been returned since late January, according to U.S. officials.

Court officials in San Diego referred questions about the number of hearings being held on Tuesday to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which did not respond to a request for comment. But attorneys representing a handful of clients were preparing to appear in court.

Migrants like 19-year-old Ariel, who said he left Honduras because of gang death threats against himself and his family, were preparing to line up at the San Ysidro port of entry first thing Tuesday morning.

Ariel, who asked to use only his middle name because of fears of reprisals in his home country, was among the first group of asylum-seeking migrants sent back to Mexico on Jan. 30 and given a notice to appear in U.S. court in San Diego.

“God willing everything will move ahead and I will be able to prove that if I am sent back to Honduras, I’ll be killed,” Ariel said.

While awaiting his U.S. hearing, Ariel said he was unable to get a legal work permit in Mexico but found a job as a restaurant busboy in Tijuana, which does not pay him enough to move out of a shelter.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other advocacy groups are suing in federal court to halt the MPP program, which is part of a series of measures the administration of President Donald Trump has taken to try to curb the flow of mostly Central American migrants trying to enter the United States.

The Trump administration says most asylum claims, especially for Central Americans, are ultimately rejected, but because of crushing immigration court backlogs people are often released pending resolution of their cases and live in the United States for years. The government has said the new program is aimed at ending “the exploitation of our generous immigration laws.”

Critics of the program say it violates U.S. law and international norms since migrants are sent back to often dangerous towns in Mexico in precarious living situations where it is difficult to get notice about changes to U.S. court dates and to find legal help.

Immigration advocates are closely watching how the proceedings will be carried out this week, especially after scheduling glitches created confusion around three hearings last week, according to a report in the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), which runs U.S. immigration courts under the Department of Justice, said only that it uses its regular court scheduling system for the MPP hearings and did not respond to a question about the reported scheduling problems.

Gregory Chen, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said there are real concerns about the difficulties of carrying out this major shift in U.S. immigration policy.

“The government did not have its shoes tied when they introduced this program,” he said.

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Bill Trott)

U.S. fires tear gas into Mexico to repel migrants, closes border gate for several hours

Migrants run from tear gas, thrown by the U.S border patrol, near the border fence between Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, Mexico, November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

By Lizbeth Diaz

TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – U.S. authorities shut the country’s busiest border crossing and fired tear gas into Mexico on Sunday to repel Central American migrants approaching the border after U.S. President Donald Trump vowed the asylum-seekers would not easily enter the country.

Traffic in both directions was suspended for several hours at the San Ysidro port of entry between San Diego and Tijuana, U.S. officials said, disrupting trade at the most heavily trafficked land border in the Western Hemisphere. Pedestrian crossings and vehicle traffic later resumed, officials said.

Tensions on the border had been rising in recent days, with thousands of Central American migrants who arrived in a caravan camped out in a sports stadium in Tijuana. On Sunday, Mexican police broke up the latest in a series of daily protests, triggering a rush toward the U.S. border.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers stopped the migrants with a volley of canisters emitting large clouds of gas as U.S. and Mexican government helicopters clattered overhead.

The Mexican government said it had retaken control of the border crossing after nearly 500 migrants tried to cross the U.S. border “in a violent manner,” and vowed to immediately deport Central Americans who attempt to enter the United States illegally.

Trump has raised alarm for weeks about the caravan of Central American migrants as it approached the United States, with its members planning to apply for asylum on reaching the country.

The mostly Honduran migrants are fleeing poverty and violence and have said they would wait in Tijuana until they could request asylum in the United States, despite growing U.S. measures to tighten the border.

Hundreds of caravan members including women and children protested peacefully on Sunday with chants of “We aren’t criminals! We are hard workers.” As they neared the U.S. border, they were stopped by Mexican authorities, who told them to wait for permission.

As the morning wore on, and it became clear they would not get permission, people started to express frustration.

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, make their way across Tijuana river near the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico in Tijuana, Mexico November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

Migrants, part of a caravan of thousands traveling from Central America en route to the United States, make their way across Tijuana river near the border wall between the U.S. and Mexico in Tijuana, Mexico November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

MILITARY POLICE DEPLOYED

Groups of migrants, some of them bearing the Honduran flag, broke off and headed toward the border fence, where U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers gathered on the other side, backed by U.S. military police, San Diego police and the California Highway Patrol.

The Americans responded with tear gas after the migrants hit them with projectiles, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said on Twitter.

“Border Patrol agents deployed tear gas to dispel the group because of the risk to agents’ safety,” the statement said.

Protesters were caught between the Mexican and U.S. authorities. A young woman fell to the ground unconscious, and two babies cried, tears streaming from the gas, a Reuters witness said.

“They want us to wait in Mexico but I for one am desperate. My little girl is sick and I don’t even have money for milk,” said Joseph Garcia, 32, of Honduras. “I can’t stand it anymore.”

Trump has deployed military forces to the border to support the Border Patrol and threatened on Saturday to close the entire southern border.

Military police were sent to the border crossing and military engineers moved barricades as part of the enforcement, the U.S. Northern Command said in a statement on Sunday.

“Department of Defense military personnel will not be conducting law enforcement functions, but are authorized to provide force protection for Customs and Border Protection personnel,” the statement said.

An average of 70,000 vehicles and 20,000 pedestrians cross from Mexico to the United States at San Ysidro each day, according to the U.S. General Services Administration.

Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center research group in Washington, called the closure a “drastic response” and said it would cost “many millions of dollars.”

U.S. and Mexican negotiators met on Sunday to discuss a plan to keep the Central Americans in Mexico while their asylum claims are heard. Normally, asylum-seekers announce their intention on arriving at U.S. ports of entry or after crossing the border illegally.

Trump has been pushing for a U.S.-Mexico border wall and warned on Thursday there could be a government shutdown next month if the U.S. Congress failed to provide funding. Sunday’s events took place at one of the stretches where there is a physical border barrier.

(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Tijuana; Additional reporting by Lucia Mutikani, Doina Chiacu and Julia Harte in Washington; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Peter Cooney)

U.S. briefly shutters border crossing to brace for migrants

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Special Response Team (SRT) officers stand guard at the San Ysidro Port of Entry after the land border crossing was temporarily closed to traffic from Tijuana, Mexico November 19, 2018. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

By Lizbeth Diaz

TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) – U.S. officials briefly closed the busiest border crossing from Mexico early on Monday to add concrete barricades and razor wire amid concerns that some of the thousands of Central American migrants at the border could try to rush the crossing.

Northbound lanes at the San Ysidro crossing from Tijuana to San Diego, California, were closed “to position additional port hardening materials,” a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said.

A Department of Homeland Security official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters in a conference call later that U.S. officials had heard reports some migrants were intending to run through border crossings into California.

Ahead of U.S. congressional elections earlier this month, President Donald Trump denounced the approach of a caravan of migrants as an “invasion” that threatened American national security. He sent thousands of U.S. troops to the border.

By dawn on Monday, 15 of 26 vehicle lanes had reopened at the San Ysidro crossing, according to the DHS official.

It was a rare closing of the station, which is one of the busiest border crossings in the world, with tens of thousands Mexicans heading every day into the United States to work or study.

“Today was a lost day of work. I already called my boss to tell her that everything was closed and I did not know what time I would be able to get in,” said Maria Gomez, a Mexican woman who crosses the border every day for work. “I cannot believe this is happening.”

Trump had remained mostly silent about the caravan since the Nov. 6 vote, but on Monday he posted a photo on Twitter showing a fence that runs from the beach in Tijuana into the ocean now covered with razor wire.

About 6,000 Central Americans have reached the border cities of Tijuana and Mexicali, according to local officials. More bands of migrants are making their way toward Tijuana, with around 10,000 expected.

Hundreds of local residents on Sunday massed at a monument in a wealthy neighborhood of Tijuana to protest the arrival of the migrants, with some carrying signs that said “Mexico first” and “No more migrants.”

Last month, thousands of Central American migrants began a long journey from Honduras through Mexico toward the United States to seek asylum.

Other bands of mostly Salvadorans followed, with a small group setting off on Sunday from San Salvador.

(Additional reporting by Yeganeh Torbati in Washington; Editing by Dan Grebler)

California wildfire crews gain edge as last evacuation orders lifted

Firefighters keep watch on the Thomas wildfire in the hills and canyons outside Montecito, California, U.S., December 16, 2017.

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Crews battling to subdue the remnants of a sprawling Southern California wildfire gained more ground on Thursday after a resurgence of winds proved weaker than expected, allowing officials to lift all remaining evacuation orders and warnings.

The so-called Thomas fire, California’s second-largest on record, has charred 272,600 acres (110,317 hectares) of coastal mountains, foothills and canyons across Ventura and Santa Barbara counties northwest of Los Angeles, fire officials said.

The fire’s spread was largely halted this week as crews extended safety buffer lines around most of its perimeter, hacking away thick chaparral and brush before it could ignite and torching some vegetation in controlled-burning operations.

Containment of the fire grew to 65 percent on Thursday, up from 60 percent a day earlier.

Much of the progress was made during three days in which diminished winds, cooler temperatures and higher humidity levels allowed firefighters to go on the attack against a blaze that had kept them on the defensive for the better part of two weeks.

A new bout of strong winds had been forecast to accelerate to 50 miles per hour (80 km per hour) on Thursday morning, stoking extreme fire conditions again, but turned out to be less forceful than expected, authorities said.

“We didn’t really see the winds that were predicted,” said Brandon Vaccaro, a spokesman for the firefighting command. Containment lines already carved around populated areas “held really well,” he said.

More than 1,000 homes and other structures were destroyed and well over 100,000 people were forced to flee their dwellings at the height of the fire storm, but abandoned communities were gradually reopened to residents this week.

On Thursday, authorities canceled the last evacuation notices still in effect for Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Only one fatality directly related to the fire has been reported, a firefighter who succumbed to burns and smoke inhalation in the line of duty last Thursday.

As the fire threat waned, the number of personnel assigned to fight the blaze has been scaled back to about 4,700, down from 8,500 at the fire’s peak.

In terms of burned landscape, the Thomas fire ranks a close second to California’s largest wildfire on record, the 2003 Cedar blaze in San Diego County, which consumed 273,246 acres (110,579 hectares) and killed 15 people.

The Thomas fire erupted Dec. 4 and was fanned by hot, dry Santa Ana winds blowing with rare hurricane force from the eastern deserts, spreading flames across miles of Southern California’s rugged, drought-parched coastal terrain.

Forecasts called for a return of mild Santa Ana gusts late on Thursday, “but it shouldn’t be anything that really challenges us,” Vaccaro said.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has estimated the cost of fighting the blaze at more than $167 million. The cause has not been determined.

The Thomas fire came two months after a spate of wind-driven blazes in Northern California’s wine country incinerated several thousand homes and killed more than 40 people, ranking as the deadliest rash of wildfires, and one of the most destructive, in state history.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Chris Reese and Leslie Adler)

California wildfire rages toward scenic coastal communities

Firefighters knock down flames as they advance on homes atop Shepherd Mesa Road in Carpinteria, California, U.S. December 10, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Eliason/Santa Barbara County Fire

 

By Phoenix Tso

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (Reuters) – A massive California wildfire that has already destroyed nearly 800 structures scorched another 56,000 acres on Sunday, making it the fifth largest such blaze in recorded state history, as it ran toward picturesque coastal cities.But fire officials said as darkness fell that with the hot, dry Santa Ana winds not as fierce as expected, crews had been successful in building some fire lines between the flames and the towns of Montecito and Carpinteria.

“This is a menacing fire, certainly, but we have a lot of people working very diligently to bring it under control,” Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown told an evening press conference.

Still, some 5,000 residents remained under evacuation orders in the two communities, near Santa Barbara and about 100 miles (160 km) northwest of Los Angeles. Some 15,000 homes were considered threatened.

The Thomas Fire, the worst of six major blazes in Southern California in the last week and already the fifth largest in the state since 1932, has blackened 230,000 acres (570,000 hectares), more than the area of New York City. It has destroyed 790 houses, outbuildings and other structures and left 90,000 homes and businesses without power.

The combination of Santa Ana winds and rugged terrain in the mountains that run through Santa Barbara and Ventura counties have hampered firefighting efforts, and officials said the Thomas Fire was only 10 percent contained on Sunday evening, down from 15 percent earlier in the day.

But wind gusts recorded at 35-40 miles per hour were less than those predicted by forecasters, giving crews a chance to slow the flames’ progress down slopes above the endangered communities.

The fires burning across Southern California have forced the evacuation of more 200,000 people and destroyed some 1,000 structures.

Among them are residents of Montecito, one of the state’s wealthiest enclave and home to such celebrities as Oprah Winfrey.

Molly-Ann Leikin, an Emmy-winning songwriter who was ordered to evacuate her Montecito home at 9 a.m. on Sunday, said she fled with only her cell phone, medication, eyeglasses and a few apples.

Leikin, 74, said she doesn’t know the condition of her home and belongings but “none of that means anything when it is your safety.”

WORST IN A DECADE

The fires that began last Monday night collectively amounted to one of the worst conflagrations across Southern California in the last decade. They have, however, been far less deadly than the blazes in Northern California’s wine country in October that killed over 40.

In the last week, only one death has been reported, a 70-year-old woman who died Wednesday in a car accident as she attempted to flee the flames in Ventura County. Scores of horses have died, including at least 46 at a thoroughbred training facility in San Diego county.

Residents and firefighters alike have been alarmed by the speed with which the fires spread, reaching into the heart of cities like Ventura.

At the Ventura County Fairgrounds, evacuees slept in makeshift beds while rescued horses were sheltered in stables.

Peggy Scissons, 78, arrived at the shelter with her dog last Wednesday, after residents of her mobile home park were forced to leave. She has not yet found out whether her home is standing.

“I don’t know what’s gonna happen next or whether I’ll be able to go home,” she said. “It would be one thing if I were 40 or 50, but I’m 78. What the heck do I do?”

James Brown, 57, who retired from Washington State’s forestry service and has lived in Ventura for a year, was forced to leave his house along with his wife last week because both have breathing problems.

“We knew a fire was coming, but we didn’t know it would be this bad,” said Brown, who is in a wheelchair.

Some of the other fires, in San Diego and Los Angeles counties, have been largely controlled by the thousands of firefighters on the ground this week.

Both the Creek and Rye fires in Los Angeles County were 90 percent contained by Sunday morning, officials said, while the Skirball Fire in Los Angeles’ posh Bel Air neighborhood was 75 percent contained.

North of San Diego, the 4,100-acre (1,660 hectare) Lilac Fire was 75 percent contained by Sunday and most evacuation orders had been lifted.

(Reporting by Phoenix Tso; Additional reporting by Mike Blake in San Diego and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Writing by Joseph Ax and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Scott Malone and Mary Milliken)

Weary firefighters brace for second week battling California wildfire

A fire crew passes a burning home during a wind-driven wildfire in Ventura.

By Phoenix Tso

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (Reuters) – Crews battling a massive wind-driven California wildfire that has torched nearly 800 buildings and charred 230,000 acres are bracing on Monday to protect communities menaced by flames along the state’s scenic coastline.

The Thomas Fire ignited last week and is burning in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

“Fire will continue to threaten the communities of Carpenteria, Summerland, Montecito and surrounding areas,” the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire)said in a Sunday night update.

Santa Ana winds and the rugged mountainous terrain have hindered firefighters as they battle the blaze, which has destroyed 790 houses, outbuildings and other structures and left 90,000 homes and businesses without power.

“A lot of these guys (firefighters) have fought a lot of fires in the past few months and are fatigued,” said Fire Captain Steve Concialdi, spokesman for the Thomas Fire.

Concialdi said firefighters from 11 Western states are aiding firefighting efforts.

The fire is 10 percent contained, down from 15 percent on Saturday after it blew up on Sunday, growing by 56,000 acres in one day and making a run of 7 miles, Concialdi said.

Nearly 5,800 firefighting personnel are working on the blaze, Cal Fire said. The cost of fighting as of Sunday was nearly $34 million, the agency added. It is already the fifth-largest wildfire on record in California.

At the University of California, Santa Barbara, final exams set for this week have been postponed, Chancellor Henry Yang said in a letter to the campus community. Air quality and transportation issues, along with power outages that have affected the school’s information technology department, forced the delay of exams until January.

Some of the other fires burning over the past week in San Diego and Los Angeles counties have been largely controlled by the thousands of firefighters on the ground this week.

Both the Creek and Rye fires in Los Angeles County were 90 percent contained by Sunday morning, officials said, while the Skirball Fire in the posh Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles was 75 percent contained.

North of San Diego, the 4,100-acre (1,660 hectare) Lilac Fire was 75 percent contained by Sunday and most evacuation orders had been lifted.

(Reporting by Phoenix Tso; Additional reporting by Mike Blake in San Diego, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles and Keith Coffman in Denver; Writing by Joseph Ax and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Peter Graff)

San Diego police say officer fatally shot, another wounded

police sirens

(Reuters) – A San Diego police officer was fatally shot and another was wounded late on Thursday, the police department said on Friday, adding one suspect was taken into custody.

The officers, members of the department’s gang suppression unit, were shot during a traffic stop at about 11 p.m. PDT (0600 GMT) in Southcrest, a neighborhood in southeast San Diego, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. The officers were taken to hospitals.

“It is with a very sad heart that we announce the death of one of our officers tonight,” the department said on Friday on its Twitter feed.

The second officer underwent surgery and is expected to survive, it said.

The police department added it was searching for other suspects.

The incident comes after eight officers were shot dead in ambushes in Dallas and Baton Rouge in July, putting police departments across the United States on high alert.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Editing by Tom Heneghan and W Simon)

Man charged with deadly attacks on homeless in San Diego

Hand cuffed man accused of killing homeless people

By Marty Graham

SAN DIEGO (Reuters) – A man with a history of mental illness was charged on Tuesday with attacking five homeless men in San Diego, killing three of his victims, in a violent crime spree this month that terrorized the city’s poorest residents.

Jon David Guerrero, 39, described by the city police chief as “disturbed” and a “predator,” appeared briefly in San Diego County Superior Court and was ordered held without bond on three counts of murder and two counts of attempted murder.

If convicted Guerrero faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole, unless prosecutors decide to seek the death penalty.

No plea was entered in the case as yet. Arraignment proceedings were postponed until Aug. 2 at the request of Guerrero’s lawyer, public defender Dan Tandon, who sought additional time to prepare.

Neither police nor prosecutors have furnished details about the nature and circumstances of the attacks, except that all five victims suffered “trauma to the upper torso,” including two slain men who were set on fire.

Guerrero was arrested on Friday. He was stopped on his bicycle 30 minutes after the latest surviving victim was found bleeding from a chest wound and screaming for help at the edge of downtown, police said.

The string of attacks, beginning on July 3, sent fear through a sprawling homeless community estimated at about 9,000 people in and around California’s second-largest city.

According to police, evidence linking Guerrero to the slayings was uncovered at his residence.

He lived in a “supportive-housing” project downtown called Alpha Square, consisting of about 200 studio apartments for former homeless men and women and other individuals with special needs.

A check of the Superior Court case index showed five mental health matters filed under his name since 2008, all of them sealed.

Dameon Ditto, a friend of Guerrero who taught him art at Alpha Square, told Reuters he had not seen the defendant since June 12.

“He had expressed to me that he was taking psychiatric medications he didn’t like,” Ditto recalled of their last encounter.

Speaking to reporters outside the courtroom after Tuesday’s hearing, Tandon appealed to the media and public for patience.

“San Diego deserves to know the truth and the whole story,” he said, adding, “The story begins many years ago.” He did not elaborate.

(Reporting by Marty Graham in San Diego; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Bernard Orr)