Gunman due in court as harrowing tales emerge from synagogue massacre
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Gunman due in court as harrowing tales emerge from synagogue massacre

Authorities use recollections of survivors to piece together the movements of killer Robert Bowers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh

A Pittsburgh Police officer walks past the Tree of Life Synagogue and a memorial of flowers and stars in Pittsburgh on October 28, 2018. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)
A Pittsburgh Police officer walks past the Tree of Life Synagogue and a memorial of flowers and stars in Pittsburgh on October 28, 2018. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)

Two days after entering Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue and opening fire on worshipers, killing 11 people, Robert Bowers will appear in federal court Monday afternoon to face 29 hate crime charges and a possible death penalty.

Bowers is accused of carrying out the 20-minute rampage in the Squirrel Hill house of worship out of a deep-seated hatred of Jews, sowing terror as he moved through the three-story synagogue mowing down people who were just arriving for Saturday morning services in what is described as likely the worst ever attack on the US Jewish community.

Bowers was charged with 11 state counts of criminal homicide, six counts of aggravated assault and 13 counts of ethnic intimidation.

He 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.

First responders surround the Tree of Life Synagogue where a shooter opened fire Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)

Federal prosecutors intend to pursue the death penalty against Bowers, US Attorney Scott Brady said Sunday.

Bowers opened fire with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons, killing eight men and three women before a tactical police team tracked him down and shot him, according to state and federal affidavits made public on Sunday.

He apparently posted an anti-Semitic message on a social media account linked to him just a few minutes before he opened fire. He expressed hatred of Jews during the rampage and later told police that “I just want to kill Jews” and that “all these Jews need to die,” authorities said.

Six people were injured, including four officers.

Bowers, who underwent surgery and remained hospitalized at Allegheny General Hospital, is scheduled to be released from hospital and appear in court at 1:30 p.m. local time Monday.

It isn’t clear whether he has an attorney to speak on his behalf. A message left with the federal public defender’s office in Pittsburgh wasn’t returned.

Bowers was apparently known around the neighborhood as an unremarkable loner who was happy to exchange greetings with people.

“We would have small talk, but he just seemed like a normal guy, and that is the scary part,” neighbor Kerri Owens told the Washington Post.

“They showed his photo, and my stomach just dropped,” Owens said, recalling the moment she saw Bowers’ image on television as the suspect in the massacre fueled by anti-Semitism. “I was sick to my stomach knowing he had been on the other side of the wall from me.”

Bowers was a long-haul trucker who worked for himself,  Brady said Sunday. Owens said he told her when he moved in to his apartment that his job meant he wouldn’t spend much time at home.

Driver’s License photo of Pittsburgh synagogue massacre suspect Robert Bowers. (Pennsylvania DOT)

Neighbors of Cindy Odorisio, who lived a short distance away from Bowers’ apartment, said she was a relative of his and the suspect would often visit her and her disabled son. Some assumed he was a caretaker for the disabled man.

“He pretty much kept to himself,” Odorisio’s neighbor John Boff said of Bowers, to the Washington Post. “He would come out and have a cigarette and go back in. He never said hi or bye or anything else.”

Some members of a Facebook group of alumni from Bowers’ high school remembered him as “troubled,” or a “loner.” Many didn’t recall him at all.

Local police told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that they had a number of “contacts” with Bowers starting in the 1990s, up until 2004. No further details were provided.

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 ongoing investigation, and who spoke Sunday on the condition of anonymity.

Tales of death and survival

Authorities have worked to piece together the movements of Bowers, with survivors giving harrowing accounts of the massacre.

Barry Werber said he walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue Saturday morning, and passed a cart carrying glassware and whiskey meant for the baby-naming ceremony scheduled at Dor Hadash, one of three small congregations that worship there.

He went downstairs, where his New Light Congregation meets, and found only a few people gathered. Melvin Wax, 88, was chatting up front with David Rosenthal, who had intellectual disabilities and spent hours helping out there. Rosenthal soon went upstairs for his own service at Tree of Life.

Two other men, Daniel Stein and Richard Gottfried, were checking on food supplies in the kitchen for the breakfast New Light planned to host.

Minutes later, Werber found himself hiding in a dark storage closet after Bowers tore through the building and opened fire, killing Wax, Rosenthal, Stein, Gottfried and seven others across two floors.

Some of the victims of the massacre. Top row, from left to right: Cecil Rosenthal, Richard Gottfried, Melvin Wax. Bottom row: Dr. Jerry Rabinowitz, Danny Stein. (Courtesy of David DeFelice via AP, Barry Werber via AP, Avishai Ostrin)

“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, 76, said Sunday. “Unfortunately, that’s our burden to bear. It breaks my heart.”

All three congregations were conducting Sabbath services when the attack began just before 10 a.m. Saturday in the tree-lined residential neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, about 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh and the hub of the city’s Jewish community.

Speaking at a vigil in Pittsburgh on Sunday night, Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers 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 were just starting to pray — with the 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 Sunday in an interview at his home.

A woman bows her head in front of a memorial on October 28, 2018, at the Tree of Life synagogue after a shooting there left 11 people dead in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh on October 27. (Photo by Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP)

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, Wax opened the door, only to be shot and fall back inside.

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

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

A Jewish emergency crew and police officers at the site of the mass shooting that killed 11 people and wounded 6 at the Tree Of Life Synagogue on October 28, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images/AFP)

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

Perlman, who also spoke at the vigil Sunday night, said New Light lost three congregants.

“These three men, they cannot be replaced,” said Perlman, his voice breaking. “But we will not be broken. We will not be ruined.”

Officials released the names of all 11 of the dead , including Rosenthal and his brother, and a husband and wife. The youngest was 54, the oldest 97.

Cecil Rosenthal, left. (Courtesy of Barry Werber via AP)

Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54, were intellectually disabled and lived together near the synagogue.

“Cecil’s laugh was infectious. David was so kind and had such a gentle spirit. Together, they looked out for one another. They were inseparable,” said Chris Schopf, vice president of residential supports for ACHIEVA, which helped the brothers live independently. “Most of all, they were kind, good people with a strong faith and respect for everyone around.”

Of the six survivors, four remained in the hospital Sunday night, and two — including a 40-year-old police officer — were in critical condition.

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