LOS ANGELES — A gunman escaped after wounding two men in the parking garage of a Los Angeles synagogue Thursday, frightening worshippers who heard gunshots and screams before the bleeding victims stumbled in during morning services.
Police briefly held a teenager who matched a vague description of the attacker. But they released the 17-year-old a short time later and continued their hunt for the assailant.
Mori Ben-Nissan, 38, and Allen Lasry, 53, were shot in the legs in the parking garage underneath the Adat Yeshurun Valley Sephardic Orthodox synagogue in North Hollywood, in the San Fernando Valley. They arrived in separate cars for the morning service shortly before 6:30 a.m. and were in a stairwell leading up to the synagogue sanctuary when a gunman shot them several times. The gunman then fled on foot.
Police immediately beefed up patrols of Jewish communities as part of a citywide alert before saying the attack appeared to be isolated. Even as investigators tried to find a motive, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other officials moved to calm fears that the attack was part of any organized anti-Semitic violence.
"We certainly recognize the location and we're sensitive to that," Deputy Police Chief Michel Moore said. "But we do not know that this was a hate crime at all."
The victims, who were hospitalized in good condition, told police the attacker did not speak or take anything from them.
One worshipper, Yehuda Oz, said he and about 14 others were praying in the temple when they heard four gunshots and screams from the parking area. Two men stumbled into the temple, Oz said, and people rushed to stop their bleeding.
No one in the temple saw the attacker, he said.
"Maybe it was crazy person," Oz told the Los Angeles Times. "Maybe he was drugged up. Maybe it was a Jew. We don't know."
Initial security camera footage from the synagogue shows the suspect but not the shooting, and the quality is too poor for investigators to identify the man, Cmdr. Jorge Villegas said, but detectives later found more security cameras at the synagogue and were reviewing those tapes.
Detective Steve Castro said a slew of possible motives was being considered, including attempted robbery or a personal business dispute.
The attack occurred 10 miles from a Jewish community center where white supremacist Buford Furrow wounded three children, a teenager and an adult, in 1999. Furrow later killed a Filipino letter carrier on another street, and is serving a life sentence without chance of parole.
The synagogue is in an area of long boulevards with commercial districts, tree-studded blocks of post-World War II stucco homes and apartment complexes on the north side of the Hollywood Hills. It has the second-largest concentration of Jews in the city, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish rights group with more than 400,000 members in the United States.
About 6,000 Jews live within walking distance of the synagogue, Cooper said. The Sephardic synagogue attracts primarily Jews from Morocco, Yemen, Israelis, some Persians.
Cooper said he was immediately curious about the time and location of the shooting: It happened very early, and the synagogue is not on a busy thoroughfare. He said if the assailant had been casing the synagogue, he would have known that 10 to 30 men show up there for a morning service every weekday before work.
Cooper stressed that the motive remained unknown.
"The mayor was absolutely right – you don't need to speculate," he said. "There's not enough to say it's a hate crime because the guy's behavior doesn't give enough clues. But the fact that he shot and where he did it means you have to operate from that very strong possibility."
LAPD First Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell said investigators were trying to determine whether a similar suspect might have been involved in robberies or other crimes in the area.
Michael Bloom, 30, an Orthodox organizer with Hatzolah, a Jewish volunteer medical response team, grew up in the diverse neighborhood. He said there had been instances of Jews being insulted as they walked to the synagogue on the Sabbath.
"This has been going on for years. Everything from 'death to Israel' to 'dirty Jew,'" he said. "There are gangs in the area. It's not the safest neighborhood."
Associated Press writers John Antczak and Thomas Watkins in Los Angeles contributed to this report.