At trial of Pittsburgh synagogue gunman, worshiper describes seeing friend die

Carol Black’s brother was also killed in shooting; defense attorney hopes to remove hate crime charges, enabling shooter Robert Bowers to dodge death penalty

An FBI agent stands behind a police cordon and an ambulance outside the Tree of Life Synagogue (L) after a shooting there left 11 people dead in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)
An FBI agent stands behind a police cordon and an ambulance outside the Tree of Life Synagogue (L) after a shooting there left 11 people dead in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh on October 27, 2018. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — It was her brother’s active faith that inspired Carol Black to recommit as an adult to being a practicing Jew several years ago, and their shared commitment brought them to the Tree of Life synagogue on the October 2018 day it was attacked.

Testifying on the second day of the trial of the man who carried out the deadliest antisemitic attack in US history, Black told jurors Wednesday about how she and others in her New Light congregation heard loud noises as they started Sabbath services. They soon realized it was gunfire, so some of them hid in a storage room.

“I just remained calm…I thought by remaining calm, I would not give my position away,” she testified in the Pittsburgh federal courtroom.

Black, 71, recalled how she remained hidden even as she saw congregant Mel Wax, who had been hiding close to her, drop dead after the gunman shot him. Wax, 87, was hard of hearing and had opened the storage door, apparently believing the attack was over she said. Black didn’t learn until later that her 65-year-old brother, Richard Gottfried, was among the 11 people killed in the attack.

The testimony came in the trial of Robert Bowers, a truck driver from the Pittsburgh suburb of Baldwin. Bowers, 50, could face the death penalty if he’s convicted of some of the 63 counts he faces in the October 27, 2018, attack, which claimed the lives of worshippers from three congregations who were using the synagogue that day: New Light, Dor Hadash and the Tree of Life.

That Bowers carried out the attack, which also injured seven people, isn’t in question: His lawyer Judy Clarke acknowledged as much on the trial’s first day. But hoping to spare Bowers from getting the death penalty, Clarke questioned the hate crime counts he faces, suggesting instead that he attacked the synagogue out of an irrational belief that that he needed to kill Jews to save others from a genocide that he claimed they were enabling by helping immigrants come to the US.

In this courtroom sketch, Robert Bowers, the suspect in the 2018 synagogue massacre, is on trial in federal court in Pittsburgh, on May 30, 2023. (David Klug via AP)

Prosecutors, who rejected Bowers’ offer to plead guilty in exchange for removing the possibility that could be sentenced to death, have said Bowers made incriminating statements to investigators and left an online trail of antisemitic statements that shows the attack was motivated by religious hatred.

Bowers, who only surrendered on the day of the attack after police shot him three times, had previously commented on Gab, a social media site popular with the far right, that Dor Hadash had hosted a refugee-oriented Sabbath service in conjunction with HIAS, a Jewish agency whose work includes aiding refugees.

Assistant US Attorney Soo Song began Wednesday’s proceedings by asking Black about her background in the congregation. She recalled how her brother Gottfried became more observant after the death of their father and how she later began attending services regularly, getting so involved that she had an adult bat mitzvah — a Jewish right of passage that she never had as a teenage girl.

“I was rededicating myself to Judaism,” she said.

She recalled fondly how in 2017, she and Richard carried Torah scrolls as they paraded from their old synagogue, which the small congregation had sold in a downsizing, to their new location in rented space at the Tree of Life building.

She said Gottfried, Wax and 71-year-old Dan Stein were “the three main pillars of our congregation. On the morning of the attack, Gottfried and Stein were in a kitchen near the sanctuary planning a men’s group breakfast for the next day when Bowers killed them.

Black said she and fellow member Barry Werber hid in a darkened storage closet for what “felt like a year” before police rescued them.

She said that as she left, she had to step over Wax’s body and that she quietly said goodbye to him as she followed the officers.

Once out of the building, police told her to run down the street to a police car.

Richard Gottfried, center, carries the Torah as he and other members of the New Light Jewish congregation march along Denniston Street to their new home at 5898 Wilkins Avenue, November 12, 2017, in Pittsburgh. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

Jurors also heard the voice of Gottfried, who called 911 to report the attack.

“There’s gunfire,” he said. When the operator asked for the address, Stein can be heard in the background providing it. The operator told them that police were already responding and that they should find a place to hide.

It was the second time the jurors heard some of the last words of victims.

On Tuesday, they heard the recording of Bernice Simon, who called 911 in terror from the Tree of Life sanctuary after Bowers shot and fatally wounded her husband, Sylvan Simon. The audio recording included the sound of the gunman re-entering the sanctuary and killing Bernice.

The couple had been married in the same chapel more than 60 years earlier.

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