In the short time since former San Antonio resident Oscar Stewart let out a primal scream and chased a gunman out of the Chabad of Poway synagogue, two young men have lost their lives attempting to stop other shooters – at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and at a high school in suburban Denver.
While Stewart, an Iraq veteran with combat experience, acted on instinct, Stewart said he hopes his actions didn’t inspire others to put themselves in harm’s way. Stewart believes he got lucky April 27 when a gunman armed with a semiautomatic rifle opened fire inside the synagogue, killing 60-year-old Lori Gilbert-Kaye and wounding three others, including Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein.
“I keep telling people this is not the smart thing to do,” Stewart said in a phone interview this week from his home in California. “If you can get the hell out of there, get out of there. Or if you can lock a door, don’t challenge the guy. I just got lucky.”
The suspect in the attack, 19-year-old John Earnest, was first charged with one count of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted murder. According to multiple news reports Thursday, Earnest now faces an additional 109 federal hate crime counts, making him eligible for the death penalty. He allegedly wrote an anti-Semitic document ahead of the shooting.
“The guy was young, immature. I think he was living a fantasy, and when reality set in, he was very scared,” Stewart said. ” … I run up to him and he is like, ‘What in the hell is going on? I’m supposed to be in charge of this situation and I’m not.’ I was very, very forceful to him in my speech. I was going to him ready to kill him. I don’t know if he saw that in my eyes. I hate to say this, but I would have killed him.”
An Orthodox Jew, Stewart was at the synagogue that day, the last day of Passover, with his wife, Linda, and one of his two stepdaughters, Aliza. Wanting to protect them, he chased the assailant back to his car, where off-duty Border Patrol agent Jonathan Morales confronted the shooter, firing rounds at the car to disable it.
It was the second shooting at an American synagogue in the past year. Another gunman killed 11 at a Pittsburgh Synagogue in October.
Stewart said he could have easily been killed if the attacker had been more experienced with using the weapon and more sure of himself. Instead, the 51-year-old father of three adult sons and two stepdaughters has been honored by President Donald Trump at the White House and appeared on television news show, hailed as a hero.
Stewart said he was born in Mexico City and immigrated to the United States in the early 1970s with his mother when his parents got divorced. He lived in Florida, then Atlanta, and finally settled in San Antonio when he was 9. He said he became a naturalized U.S. citizen when he was still a boy.
Stewart said he and his sister, Maria, initially settled in a tough neighborhood near downtown San Antonio, but his mother did everything she could to move them to a safer environment on the Northwest Side of the city.
Stewart joined the swim teams at the Roosevelt Park pool and Jefferson High School. Don Walker, the swimming coach at Alamo Heights High School who will move to Trinity University next fall, was one of Stewart’s coaches.
“He worked hard and was a good swimmer,” said Walker, recalling that he often helped the always-smiling Stewart get to competitions because he lacked transportation. “By no means did I see him doing something like this 35 years later.
“It was kind of odd to see this kid from the projects speaking in front of the president of the United States. To me, that was very moving. It was an only-in-America type thing.”
After spending several years at the University of Texas San Antonio and not being able to decide what he wanted to do, he joined the U.S. Navy, working in an explosive ordinance disposal unit and disabling underwater mines in the Persian Gulf. He left the Navy after the birth of his first son, Max. Later, two more sons, Alex and Ethan, arrived.
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Stewart decided he needed to serve his country again and joined the Army National Guard in North Dakota, where he was living at the time. In that role, he saw combat in Iraq.
Although his combat experience kicked in at Chabad of Poway synagogue last month, Stewart said preemptive action that could end up preventing hatred from escalating into violence is the wiser choice and that bystanders should speak up about hateful behavior when they see it.
“I’m not saying rush a guy with a gun,” he said, “but if you see somebody tormenting somebody for whatever reason, like if someone is picking on someone because they’re black or because they’re handicapped or because they’re gay, you need to say something. You need to say, “Hey, that’s not right. Leave them alone.’ You’ll be surprised how effective that is.”
Stewart said he hasn’t been to San Antonio since 2013, when he returned to the city to be with his mother, Daniella, who suffered a stroke and died. He said he has mostly fond memories of the city.
“If you think about when people develop and their attitudes and their likes and dislikes and, I guess, who they are – that was all developed in San Antonio,” Stewart said of himself. “People that I met. People that I hung out with. People that inspired me. People that mentored me, that I looked up to. They were all basically there in my formative years.
“I’d say 85 percent of who I am happened in San Antonio.”