Suspect in shooting at Memphis Jewish school was haunted by police killing of father

Source close to Joel Bowman’s family says he was suffering mental health woes, lingering trauma from father’s death, when he fired gun at his alma mater and was shot by police

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Memphis police officers at the scene of an officer-involved shooting, July 31, 2023, in Memphis, Tennessee. (AP Photo/Adrian Sainz)
Memphis police officers at the scene of an officer-involved shooting, July 31, 2023, in Memphis, Tennessee. (AP Photo/Adrian Sainz)

The US man who fired a handgun outside a Jewish school in Tennessee on Monday, and was critically wounded by police gunfire afterward, was experiencing mental health issues and lingering trauma caused by the police shooting of his father decades earlier, a source close to the family said.

Joel Bowman attempted to enter the Margolin Hebrew Academy in Memphis with a firearm on Monday afternoon. He was unable to access the building and fired several shots outside, causing no injuries, but sparking fears of an attempted attack, before fleeing the scene.

Police tracked down his vehicle in a nearby city and shot him after he got out of his truck with a gun, the Memphis Police Department said.

Bowman is Jewish and a former student at the school, according to the family and US Rep. Steve Cohen, whose district includes Memphis. Bowman, who was first identified by local media reports, remains hospitalized with severe wounds, but was conscious as of Tuesday evening, a source close to the family told The Times of Israel.

Bowman’s shooting by police echoed the circumstances of his father’s death in May 2003. In that incident, Bowman’s mother called police, saying her husband, Dr. Anthony J. Bowman, was “acting erratically and appeared to be emotionally distraught.” He suffered from bipolar disorder and was taking medication for the condition, according to a lawsuit the family filed against the city in 2004.

Police arrived at the scene and found the elder Bowman with a firearm, which he pointed at himself. Officers shot and killed him. His son Joel, a minor at the time, was present at the scene.

The family sued the city, saying Anthony Bowman had been wrongfully killed because he did not pose a threat to anyone else. The lawsuit was dismissed in 2010.

Joel Bowman posted a photo of his father’s gravestone on Facebook on Saturday, alongside a lengthy, incoherent statement. In a flurry of other recent online posts, he referred to the effects of his “familial pain,” his place in “the afterlife” and descriptions of mental anguish.

The source close to the family, an old friend of Bowman’s, said the suspect had drifted from his friends over the past 10 years but had reached out again recently.

His motive for the shooting remains unclear, but the source said he believed Bowman “wasn’t trying to shoot anybody.”

“He was a great guy and has some mental health issues that needed to be dealt with, and trauma from his father,” he said, ascribing some fault for the incident to authorities. “He was in psychiatric care but he was still able to buy guns. They knew he has problems.”

Margolin Hebrew Academy posted a statement Tuesday saying the school was “shocked and saddened” by the incident, and “grateful to God that thanks to our school’s extensive security measures and the swift response by the Memphis Police Department, everyone is safe.”

The Margolin Hebrew Academy is an Orthodox school serving students from preschool through the 12th grade, according to its website. The school was not in session at the time of the shooting, but there were staff and construction workers at the site.

Bowman graduated from the school in 2009 and received a scholarship to study in Israel. His whereabouts in recent years were unclear.

After the shooting on Monday, police said officers had “mitigated a potential mass shooting situation.”

The Tennessee Bureau of Investigations is handling the investigation of the case.

The Secure Community Network, which coordinates security for Jewish institutions in the US, and the Memphis Jewish Federation shared information with law enforcement about the shooting, helping officers locate Bowman.

US Jewish institutions have invested heavily in security measures in recent years as antisemitism has soared in the US, and after a series of deadly attacks on Jews.

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