Synagogue massacre defendant appears in court in wheelchair

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The man accused in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre appeared briefly in federal court in a wheelchair and handcuffs Monday to face charges he killed 11 people in what is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.
Robert Gregory Bowers, who was wounded in a gun battle with police during the shooting rampage, was released from a hospital in the morning and a few hours later was wheeled into the courtroom, where he was ordered held without bail for a preliminary hearing on Thursday, when prosecutors will outline their case against him.During the court appearance, Bowers talked with two court-appointed lawyers, went over documents and confirmed his identity to a judge, saying little more than “Yes” in a soft voice a few times. Courtroom deputies freed one of his hands from cuffs so he could sign paperwork. He did not enter a plea.

He was expressionless.

“It was not the face of villainy that I thought we’d see,” said Jon Pushinsky, a congregant at Dor Hadash, which lost one of its members to the massacre. Pushinsky was one of two Dor Hadash congregants at the hearing.

Federal prosecutors set in motion plans to seek the death penalty against the 46-year-old truck driver, who authorities say expressed hatred of Jews during the rampage and later told police, “I just want to kill Jews” and “All these Jews need to die.”

After the hearing, U.S. Attorney Scott Brady called the shootings “horrific acts of violence” and added: “Rest assured we have a team of prosecutors working hard to ensure that justice is done.”

The first funeral — for Cecil Rosenthal and his younger brother, David — was set for Tuesday.

Survivors, meanwhile, began offering harrowing accounts of the mass shooting Saturday inside Tree of Life Synagogue.

Barry Werber, 76, said he found himself hiding in a dark storage closet as the gunman tore through the building.

“I don’t know why he thinks the Jews are responsible for all the ills in the world, but he’s not the first and he won’t be the last,” Werber said. “Unfortunately, that’s our burden to bear. It breaks my heart.”

The White House announced President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump will visit Pennsylvania on Tuesday “to express the support of the American people and to grieve with the Pittsburgh community.”

The response to Trump’s plans to visit has been mixed.

Leaders of a liberal Jewish group in Pittsburgh wrote an open letter to the president, saying he was not welcome until he denounced white nationalism. But Rabbi Jeffrey Myers with the Tree of Life synagogue made clear Trump would be welcome, telling NBC, “It would be my honor to always meet a president of the United States.”

The weekend massacre — which took place 10 days before the midterm elections — heightened tensions around the country, coming just a day after the arrest of the Florida man accused of sending a wave of pipe bombs to Trump critics.

The mail bomb attacks and the bloodshed in Pittsburgh set off debate over whether the corrosive political climate in Washington and beyond contributed to the violence and whether Trump himself bears any blame because of his combative language.

Werber noted that the president has embraced the politically fraught label of “nationalist.” He said the Nazis were nationalists.

“It’s part of his program to instigate his base,” Werber said, and “bigots are coming out of the woodwork.”

Bowers killed eight men and three women before a police tactical team shot him, authorities said. Six other people were wounded, including four officers. Four of the wounded remained hospitalized Sunday night, two in critical condition.

He was charged in a 29-count federal criminal complaint that included counts of obstructing the exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death — a hate crime — and using a gun to commit murder.

Bowers was also charged under state law with criminal homicide, aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation.

Just minutes before the synagogue attack, Bowers apparently took to social media to rage against HIAS, a Jewish organization that resettles refugees under contract with the U.S. government.

“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” he is believed to have written on Gab.com, a social media site favored by right-wing extremists. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

HIAS had recently weighed in on the migrant caravan heading toward the U.S. from Central America, urging the Trump administration to “provide all asylum seekers the opportunity to present their claims as required by law and treat all migrants fairly and humanely.” The president has vilified the caravan and pledged to stop the migrants.

One of the targets of the mail bomb attacks last week was liberal Jewish philanthropist George Soros, who has been accused by far-right conspiracy theorists of paying migrants to join the caravan.

Three congregations were conducting Sabbath services in the synagogue when the attack began just before 10 a.m. in the tree-lined residential neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, the historic hub of the city’s Jewish community .

Speaking at a vigil in Pittsburgh on Sunday night, Myers, the Tree of Life rabbi, said about a dozen people had gathered in the main sanctuary when Bowers walked in and began shooting. Seven of his congregants were killed, he said.

“My holy place has been defiled,” he said.

In the basement, four members of New Light congregation were just starting to pray — with two others in the kitchen — when they heard crashing coming from upstairs, looked out the door and saw a body on the staircase, Werber recalled in an interview.

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman closed the door and pushed them into a large supply closet, he said. As gunshots echoed upstairs, Werber called 911 but was afraid to say anything for fear of making any noise. When the shots subsided, he said, another congregant, Melvin Wax, opened the door, only to be shot.

“There were three shots, and he falls back into the room where we were,” Werber said. “The gunman walks in.”

Apparently unable to see Werber and the other congregants in the darkness, Bowers walked back out.

Werber called the gunman “a maniac” and “a person who has no control of his baser instincts.”

The youngest of the 11 dead was 54, the oldest 97. The toll included a husband and wife, professors, dentists and physicians.

Bowers shot his victims with an AR-15, used in many of the nation’s mass shootings, and three handguns, all of which he owned legally and had a license to carry, according to a law enforcement official who wasn’t authorized to discuss the investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Bowers was a long-haul trucker who worked for himself, authorities said. Little else was known about Bowers, who had no apparent criminal record.

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This story has been corrected to fix the spelling of ‘Pushinsky.’

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Lauer reported from Philadelphia. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Mark Scolforo in Pittsburgh, Michael Balsamo in Washington, Jennifer Peltz in New York and Michael Rubinkam in northeastern Pennsylvania.

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For AP’s complete coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings: https://www.apnews.com/Shootings

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PITTSBURGH (AP) — The suspect in the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue expressed hatred of Jews during the rampage and told officers afterward that Jews were committing genocide and that he wanted them all to die, according to charging documents made public Sunday.
Robert Gregory Bowers

Robert Gregory Bowers killed eight men and three women inside the Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday during worship services before a tactical police team tracked him down and shot him, authorities said in state and federal affidavits, which contained some unreported details on the shooting and the police response.”I just want to kill Jews,” Bowers told an officer, according to one of the documents.

Officials released the names of all 11 victims during a news conference Sunday, all of them middle-aged or elderly. The victims included a pair of brothers and a husband and wife. The oldest was 97.

Mayor Bill Peduto called it the “darkest day of Pittsburgh’s history.”

Calls began coming in to 911 from the synagogue just before 10 a.m. Saturday. Bowers, 46, shot one of the first two officers to respond in the hand, and the other was wounded by “shrapnel and broken glass,” according to court documents.

A tactical team found Bowers on the third floor, where he shot two officers multiple times, an affidavit said.

One of the wounded officers was treated and released, and a second was expected to be released Sunday. The other two officers were expected to stay in the hospital, and one of them, a 40-year-old man, remained in critical condition Sunday.

Two other people in the synagogue were wounded by Bowers. A 61-year-old woman was listed in stable condition, and a 70-year-old man was in critical condition, according to the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Bowers, who was armed with an AR-15 rifle and three handguns and used all four weapons in the attack, told an officer while he was being treated for his injuries “that he wanted all Jews to die and also that they (Jews) were committing genocide to his people,” a Pittsburgh police affidavit said.

Bowers was charged with 11 state counts of criminal homicide, six counts of aggravated assault and 13 counts of ethnic intimidation in what the leader of the Anti-Defamation League called the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.

Bowers was also charged in a 29-count federal criminal complaint that included counts of obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death — a federal hate crime — and using a firearm to commit murder. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the charges “could lead to the death penalty.”

Bowers, who underwent surgery and remained hospitalized, is scheduled for a court appearance Monday. It wasn’t clear whether he had an attorney to speak on his behalf.

His neighbor, Chris Hall, said he never heard or saw anything to indicate that Bowers harbored anti-Semitic views or posed a threat. Bowers kept to himself, he said.

“The most terrifying thing is just how normal he seemed,” Hall said. “I wish I knew what was going on inside his head. Maybe something could have been done. I don’t know.”

The victims included Melvin Wax, a retired accountant in his late 80s who was always one of the first to arrive at synagogue and among the last to leave.

“He and I used to, at the end of services, try to tell a joke or two to each other,” said Myron Snider, a fellow member of New Light Congregation, which rented space in the basement of Tree of Life. “Most of the time they were clean jokes. Most of the time. I won’t say all the time. But most of the time.”

The nation’s latest mass shooting drew condemnation and expressions of sympathy from politicians and religious leaders of all stripes. With the midterm election just over a week away, it also reignited a longstanding and bitter debate over guns.

Pope Francis led prayers for Pittsburgh on Sunday in St. Peter’s Square.

“In reality, all of us are wounded by this inhuman act of violence,” he said. He prayed for God “to help us to extinguish the flames of hatred that develop in our societies, reinforcing the sense of humanity, respect for life and civil and moral values.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman quoted Merkel on Twitter as offering her condolences and saying that “all of us must confront anti-Semitism with determination — everywhere.”

Trump on Saturday said the outcome might have been different if the synagogue “had some kind of protection” from an armed guard, while Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, up for re-election, noted that once again “dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm’s way.”

Calling the shooting an “evil anti-Semitic attack,” Trump ordered flags at federal buildings throughout the U.S. to be flown at half-staff in respect for the victims. He said he planned to travel to Pittsburgh but offered no details.

In the city, thousands gathered for a vigil Saturday night. Some blamed the slaughter on the nation’s political climate.

“When you spew hate speech, people act on it. Very simple. And this is the result. A lot of people dead. Senselessly,” said Stephen Cohen, co-president of New Light Congregation, which rents space at Tree of Life.

Little was known about Bowers, who had no apparent criminal record but who is believed to have expressed virulently anti-Semitic views on social media. Authorities said it appears he acted alone.

The Jewish community is “an important part of the cultural and social identity of Pittsburgh, and so this was an attack upon our neighbors and upon our friends,” Scott Brady, the chief federal prosecutor in western Pennsylvania, said.

The gunman targeted a building that housed three separate congregations, all of which were conducting Sabbath services when the attack began just before 10 a.m. in the tree-lined residential neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, about 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh and the hub of the city’s Jewish community.

During the week, anyone who wanted to get inside Tree of Life synagogue had to ring the doorbell and be granted entry by staff because the front door was kept locked. Not so on Saturday — the Jewish Sabbath — when the building was open for worship.

Michael Eisenberg, the immediate past president of the Tree of Life, said synagogue officials had not gotten any threats that he knew of before the shooting. But security was a concern, he said, and the synagogue had started working to improve it.

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Lauer reported from Philadelphia, and Breed reported from Raleigh, North Carolina. Contributing to this report were Associated Press journalists Mark Gillispie, Robert Bumsted and Gene Puskar in Pittsburgh; Eric Tucker, Michael Biesecker and Michael Balsamo in Washington; Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Michael Kunzelman in Silver Spring, Maryland; and Michael Rubinkam in northeastern Pennsylvania.

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For AP’s complete coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings: https://www.apnews.com/Shootings

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