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Pittsburgh synagogue gunman told SWAT he wanted all Jews to die: criminal complaint

Posted at 12:12 PM, Oct 28, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-28 12:52:50-04

Not long after gunfire broke out, police officers in tactical gear rushed into a synagogue in the heart of Pittsburgh’s Jewish community.

For 20 minutes, the officers encountered dead bodies and wounded worshipers and exchanged gunfire with a man with an assault rifle, said Robert Jones, the FBI’s special agent in charge of the Pittsburgh office.

“This is the most horrific crime scene I’ve seen in 22 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” Jones said.

Authorities released the names of the 11 victims Sunday, all of whom were from Pennsylvania. Joyce Fienberg, 75, Rose Mallinger, 97, Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, Cecil Rosenthal, 59, David Rosenthal, 54, Daniel Stein, 71, Melvin Wax, 88, and Irving Younger, 69, were from Pittsburgh. Richard Gottfried, 65, was from Ross Township and Bernice Simon, 84, and Sylvan Simon, 86, were from Wilkinsburg, Allegheny County Chief Medical Examiner Karl Williams said.

The Rosenthals were brothers, and the Simons were married, Williams’ office said.

The suspected gunman, Robert Bowers, told a SWAT officer while receiving medical care that he wanted all Jews to die and that Jews “were committing genocide to his people,” a criminal complaint filed in Allegheny County says.

During his shootout with police, Bowers told a policeman, “They’re committing genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews,” an FBI affidavit says.

Dozens of people had arrived to the Tree of Life synagogue that morning to celebrate Saturday Shabbat services. By dawn on Sunday, crowds took to the streets of the historically Jewish Squirrel Hill neighborhood despite the rain to light candles and mourn the 11 people killed there.

The attack is the deadliest on a Jewish community in US history, the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement. Authorities believe the suspect acted alone. He faces 29 federal charges, some of which are punishable by death.

“We simply cannot accept this violence as a normal part of American life,” Gov. Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania told reporters Saturday evening. “These senseless acts of violence are not who we are as Pennsylvanians and are not who we are as Americans.”

A trail of hate

For weeks before the Tree of Life shooting, Bower frequently targeted Jews in his posts on Gab, a social media platform that bills itself as “the free speech social network.”

The 46-year-old resident of suburban Baldwin used anti-Semitic slurs, complained that President Donald Trump was surrounded by too many Jewish people and blamed Jews for helping migrant caravans in Central America. He posted pictures of his handgun collection.

The language on the account matches the suspected motivations behind the shootings, a law enforcement source said.

Gab has denied any support for terrorism and violence and said its mission is “to defend free expression and individual liberty online for all people.” Gab said it has backed up the suspect’s profile data, suspended the account and contacted the FBI.

Bowers posted constantly on the platform. Four hours before the shooting he posted about Trump. Minutes before storming inside the building, he logged onto Gab again and wrote to his followers.

“I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered,” he wrote. “Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

A day of worship turned into chaos

It was a peaceful morning when neighbors in Squirrel Hill suddenly heard screams and gunshots coming from the synagogue. In minutes, police officers were running around urging them to stay indoors.

While it’s unclear how many people were inside the synagogue, Michael Eisenberg, the immediate past president of the Tree of Life congregation, said that nearly a hundred people could have been attending simultaneous services for three different congregations.

“On a day like today, the door is open,” Eisenberg told a reporter for CNN affiliate KDKA. “It’s a religious service. You could walk in and out. Only on the high holidays is there a police presence at the entrance.”

Police say they received several 911 calls around 10 a.m. about an active shooter at the synagogue — only five minutes had passed since Bowers made his last social media post.

A gunman, wearing a green vest or green jacket, came into the lobby and began firing, officers said in radio traffic recordings posted on Broadcastify.

As officers made their way to the synagogue, they were told a caller heard 20 to 30 shots from the lobby. People were running and hiding throughout the building.

Police initially confronted the suspect, a man armed with “assault-style rifle,” when he was leaving. Two police officers spotted him and then he opened fire at them, according to the FBI’s Jones and the Allegheny County criminal complaint.

He shot one of them in the hand before hiding inside the synagogue, the document states. The other officer received several cuts to his face from shrapnel and broken glass.

Bowers used a Colt AR-15 rifle and three Glock handguns during the attack, police said.

Gunman surrenders

When officers in tactical gear entered the building, they found the victims bodies and survivors hiding. They rescued at least two people from the basement and scrambled to evacuate people as they looked for the gunman.

SWAT officers found Bowers in the third floor of the building, a criminal complaint says. They exchanged fire until Bowers surrendered, authorities said.

He was in fair condition Saturday evening with multiple gunshot wounds, officials said. It’s believed he was shot by police.

Investigators recovered a rifle and three handguns from the scene of the shooting, Jones said.

Bowers is now facing at least 29 federal charges, including using a firearm to commit murder and multiple counts of obstruction of exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death — a hate crime. Authorities said he killed 11 people — three women and eight men.

“The actions of Robert Bowers represent the worst of humanity,” US Attorney Scott W. Brady said.

Bowers could face the death penalty if he is convicted of a hate crime.

He was also charged with 11 state offenses, including attempted homicide and aggravated assault, a criminal complaint shows.

“These incidents usually occur in other cities,” Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich told reporters Saturday afternoon. “Today, the nightmare has hit home in the city of Pittsburgh.”

Two police officers, two SWAT officers and two other people were wounded in the shooting, Hissrich said. One officer was released Saturday, another is expected to leave the hospital Sunday and two remain hospitalized, Police Chief Scott Schubert said.

Five victims were being treated at two Pittsburgh hospitals, health officials said. One wounded person was treated and released, they said.

Trump: Shooting ‘more devastating than originally thought’

Trump told reporters at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland that the shooting was a “terrible, terrible thing.”

“If there was an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop him,” Trump said before boarding a flight to Indianapolis.

After landing, Trump told reporters the shooting looks like “an anti-Semitic crime.”

“We’re learning a lot about it. It looks definitely like it’s an anti-Semitic crime. And that is something you wouldn’t believe could still be going on,” he said.

Trump previously said in a tweet that the shooting was “far more devastating than originally thought.”

The President ordered flags flown at half-staff in honor of the synagogue shooting victims.

Groups around the world speak up

A number of other figures and organizations issued statements condemning the violence and extending its sympathies to the victims and their families.

“The museum reminds all Americans of the dangers of unchecked hatred and anti-Semitism which must be confronted wherever they appear and calls on all Americans to actively work to promote social solidarity and respect the dignity of all individuals,” the Holocaust Museum said in a statement.

During his Sunday address, Pope Francis offered his condolences to the Jewish community in Pittsburgh.

“May the Most High welcome the deceased in his peace, comfort their families and sustain the injured. In reality, we are all wounded by this inhuman act of violence,” he said. “May the Lord help us to end the outbreaks of hate that develop in our society, reinforcing a sense of humanity, respect for life, moral and civil values and a holy fear of God, who is Love and Father of all.”

In 2017, anti-Semitic incidents in the United States surged nearly 60%, according to the Anti-Defamation League. It found 1,986 cases of harassment, vandalism or physical assault against Jews and Jewish institutions last year.

In a statement Saturday, the ADL said the attack was believed to be the deadliest on the Jewish community in US history.

“It is simply unconscionable for Jews to be targeted during worship on a Sabbath morning,” the ADL said, “and unthinkable that it would happen in the United States of America in this day and age.”

The Rabbinical Assembly said an act of hate against one community was an act of hate against all.

“This mass murder is a reminder that anti-Semitism is on the rise in America at a rate unprecedented in decades. This vicious hate crime, perpetrated against innocent people at prayer is but the latest in an escalating scourge of hate-based violence in America,” the group said in a statement.

The Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America issued a joint statement expressing sympathy for the victims of the attack.

“This senseless act of anti-Semitic violence was not only an egregious attack on the Jewish community, but an attack on the very foundations of civil society and our collective democratic values,” the Orthodox Union’s executive vice president said.