Police testify on ‘enormous’ gunfire exchange with shooter at Pittsburgh synagogue

Officers recount gunman saying ‘all Jews need to die’ after carrying out deadliest antisemitic attack in US history in 2018

First responders surround the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where a shooter opened fire and 11 people were killed in America's deadliest antisemitic attack, Octoer 27, 2018. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)
First responders surround the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where a shooter opened fire and 11 people were killed in America's deadliest antisemitic attack, Octoer 27, 2018. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)

Police on Friday described how they exchanged fire with a gunman who carried out the deadliest antisemitic attack in US history, frantic to get wounded worshippers to safety as they shot and neutralized the suspect.

Several officers took the stand on fourth day of the prosecution’s case against Robert Bowers, whose lawyers have acknowledged he shot and killed 11 worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue in October 2018 but are working to spare his life.

Bowers, who surrendered after being shot three times, was asked at the scene why he’d done it and responded that he “had enough. They were killing our children,” and “all Jews need to die,” Officer Clint Thimons, a member of the SWAT team, told jurors at the federal courthouse in Pittsburgh.

Survivors have previously testified about the terror they felt that day as Bowers barged into the synagogue and shot everyone he could find.

Bowers, a 50-year-old truck driver from the Pittsburgh suburb of Baldwin, faces 63 federal charges, some of which carry a potential death sentence. One of his lawyers said in her opening statement that Bowers carried out the attack, but the defense is trying to undermine the government’s case that he committed hate crimes.

Stephen Mescan, a tactical commander and member of the SWAT team, said Friday that the synagogue was “all shot up” when he and other SWAT officers got there, shattered glass everywhere and bullet holes pockmarking the building.

File: A SWAT team arrives at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh where a shooter opened fire, Saturday, October 27, 2018. (AP/Gene J. Puskar)

He said he entered, passing by several of the dead who “were obviously shot in the face multiple times,” and worked to evacuate injured victims. Seven people were wounded in the attack — including five police officers — and Mescan described how SWAT members dragged out a severely injured officer who had been shot several times.

The volume of the firefight between Bowers and police was “enormous,” Mescan said. He said Bowers was hit and told police he wanted to surrender. Mescan told jurors he heard Bowers say he wanted all Jews to die.

Police tape surrounds an assault rifle magazine in the aftermath of a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, October 28, 2018. (US District Court Western District of Pennsylvania Evidence Photo via JTA)

Police officer Michael Smidga, who was among the first officers on the scene and was among the wounded, testified that prior to the attack on Oct. 27, 2018, he had routinely conducted security sweeps at Tree of Life and other synagogues in the area, “because people have a lot of hate in them.”

Prosecutors have said Bowers expressed a hatred of Jews online and at the synagogue on the day of the attack. The 11 worshippers he killed were members of three congregations that used the synagogue — New Light, Dor Hadash and the Tree of Life.

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