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Detectives search for suspect, motive in North Hollywood synagogue shootings [Updated]

October 29, 2009 | 11:35 am

A gunman entered the grounds of a North Hollywood synagogue this morning and shot and wounded two men who were going to a prayer service.

[Updated at 12:37 p.m.: A 17-year-old who was detained this morning near the synagogue for questioning in the shooting has been released, according to LAPD Lt. John Romero.]

While police initially said they were investigating the shooting as a hate crime, officials later said it's too early to tell whether the attack was motivated by religious hate.

The initial description of the suspect was of a black man wearing a black hoodie. But law enforcement sources told The Times that the investigation was wide open and that police were investigating all possibilities, including whether the gunman specifically targeted either of the victims.

One source said detectives were not certain of the suspect's race.

[Updated at 12:38 p.m.: Several law enforcement sources also said investigators are looking at whether the shootings were related to a business or personal dispute. The sources said detectives believe one of the victims was the target, and that a second victim may have been shot because he witnessed the attack.]

Speaking to reporters outside the taped-off synagogue, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called the incident "a senseless act of violence." But the mayor was careful to temper worries that the shooting was a hate crime.

"None of us should presume or speculate more about this other than it was a random act of violence," he said.

ThumbFinal The unidentified gunman walked into the underground parking garage of Adat Yeshurun Valley Sephardic synagogue at 12405 Sylvan Street shortly before 6:20 a.m., said LAPD Deputy Chief Michel Moore. He approached a man in his 40s who was parking his car to attend prayer service.

"Without any words," Moore said, the suspect shot the man in the leg. He then fired at a second man in his 40s who had also arrived for prayers. The second victim was also wounded in the leg. The gunman then fled from the garage. Witnesses called 911.

Moore said both victims were in good condition at local hospitals.

Detectives are "working with [the victims] to understand more information," Moore said. They do not believe the motive was robbery, according to LAPD sources, who spoke to The Times on the condition they not be named because the investigation was ongoing.

Los Angeles police arrested a man about an hour later near the synagogue, but sources said they do not believe he was the gunman. LAPD officials have alerted other synagogues around Los Angeles about the shooting, and police have stepped up patrols at Jewish religious institutions.

Adat Yeshurun is in the heart of the San Fernando Valley's Orthodox Jewish community and within walking distance of kosher markets and other synagogues. Many people move to the area so they could walk to temple.

The sources said detectives are trying to determine the motive, and whether the gunman acted alone or as part of a larger group.  LAPD detectives were reviewing security videotapes from the temple in hopes of better understanding the chain of events.

They were also searching a nearby park to see if the suspect was hiding there.

Yehuda Oz, 53, a man of Tunisian descent, has attended the Sephardic Jewish temple for the last 15 years. He arrived early this morning to begin his regular morning prayers.

About an hour later, as he prayed with some 15 others in the temple's quiet sanctuary, four gunshots broke the silence, he said.

He said he heard screams from the parking lot, then saw two men stumble into the temple.

Their blood spread over the floor as people rushed to stop the bleeding, Oz said, but no one inside saw the shooter.

"Maybe it was crazy person. Maybe he was drugged up. Maybe it was a Jew. We don't know," Oz said, nervously adjusting his yarmulke as he stood outside the taped-off scene with two friends.

Oz said the two men who were shot were latecomers who had just parked their cars.

The temple, which has a congregation of mostly Moroccan and other North African Jews, installed security cameras years ago to discourage attacks, Yehuda said.

"This is a good place," he said.

A girls' school at the synagogue with 112 students canceled classes today.  At least two rabbis from neighboring synagogues who were at the scene this morning said they were counseling their own congregants to stay calm.

“The feeling is that we’ve got to keep our eyes open for each other,” said Rabbi Nachman Nabend of Chabad of North Hollywood. “It makes me angry when anyone gets targeted.”

Adat Ari El, the fourth-largest conservative synagogue in L.A. with a 750-family congregation, is about two miles away from Adat Yeshurun. Joanne Klein, executive director at Adat Ari El, said there are more LAPD patrol cars in the area and her synagogue is increasing its own security by closing multiple entrances and adding additional security guards.

“We’re watchful,” said Klein. “We’re taking extra precautions and we’re paying attention to what’s going on in the community. We’re still open for business."

At Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills, Maor Ben-Nissan, 37, was undergoing surgery after being shot in the leg, his friends and family members said.

His wife, brother-in-law and friends gathered at the hospital, drinking coffee and hovering around the TV, watching live coverage from the synagogue. Ben-Nissan lives in North Hollywood with his wife, Anat, and 2-year-old son. He owns a tile store and is very devout, going to synagogue every morning, friends said. “I haven’t seen my husband yet,” said Anat, whose eyes were red.

His brother-in-law, who said he did not want to give his name, said he had arrived at the synagogue a few minutes before Ben-Nissan and was in the synagogue when the shooting occurred. He heard four shots.

 “We panicked and ran,” the brother-in-law said. As he went out, he saw Ben-Nissan hobbling up the stairs, and saw the blood on his leg and on the stairs.

 “He called my name. I ran to him,” the brother-in-law said.

-- Robert Faturechi, Andrew Blankstein and Duke Helfand in North Hollywood; Anna Gorman in Mission Hills; Catherine Saillant in Van Nuys; and Richard Winton, Baxter Holmes and Raja Abdulrahim in Los Angeles

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Photo: LAPD officers investigate the shooting of two people at the Adat Yeshurun Valley Sephardic synagogue in North Hollywood. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times