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Accused synagogue gunman appears in court as rabbi pleads: ‘Stop the words of hate’

Washington Post, Posted October 29 at 3:46 PM

The man accused of killing 11 people in a synagogue here appeared in court Monday, two days after a massacre that tore through this community and set off new waves of fear and acrimony in the United States.

Pittsburge Synagogue Suspect
Robert Gregory Bowers, 46.

Robert Bowers, 46, had not been publicly seen since the bloodshed at the Tree of Life synagogue during on Saturday morning. Authorities said he stalked through the synagogue, fatally shooting 11 people and engaging in a gun battle with responding police officers while declaring that he wanted “to kill Jews.” Police said Bowers was shot multiple times during the firefight, and he was hospitalized until not long before his court hearing.

As the Pittsburgh area prepares for a grim procession of funerals, investigators in the city and beyond have pored over Bowers’s life, examining his actions leading up to the attack as well as his postings online.

The man authorities say carried out the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history presented an unnerving paradox, combining an unremarkable public facade in person that contrasted with a raging online presence. A social media account with his name repeatedly posted comments rife with anti-Semitism and other bigotry, but people who encountered him in person described him as an unremarkable loner who gave off no indications of that hatred or left no impression at all.

Bowers faces more than two dozen federal charges, including hate crime counts for which prosecutors say they hope to seek the death penalty. He also faces state charges, among them 11 counts of homicide.

During a court appearance just a few miles from the carnage-ridden synagogue, Bowers, seated in a wheelchair, was denied bail and only spoke to answer questions posed by the judge. He was discharged from the hospital on Monday morning, about 48 hours after the massacre at the synagogue began.

Federal marshals wheeled Bowers, wearing a blue sweatshirt and gray sweatpants, into the courtroom at 1:30 p.m. He appeared coherent and aware of what was going on, answering “Yes” when the judge asked him his name and whether he had requested a public defender because he could not afford his own attorney. When Magistrate Judge Robert C. Mitchell read the charges against him — including obstruction of exercise of religious belief resulting in death — and asked if Bowers understood them, he replied: “Yes sir.”

It did not appear that any friends or family of Bowers attended. The federal public defender’s office did not respond to requests for comment about the case Monday.

Jon Pushinsky, 64, a member of one of the congregations that meets at Tree of Life, came to the court hearing in a show of strength on its behalf after the attack.

“It was important to be here to show our congregation remains strong and will stand up, even in the face of evil,” he said.

Scott Brady, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, has begun the process of seeking the death penalty in the case, a decision that rests with the attorney general. Speaking after the hearing, Brady told reporters: “Rest assured, we have a team of prosecutors working hard to ensure that justice is done.”

Even as the criminal case against Bowers began moving in the court system, people in grief-stricken Pittsburgh prepared to bury those who were killed. Funerals were scheduled to begin on Tuesday for the victims, which included a 97-year-old woman, a husband and wife and two brothers. Vigils were also expected to continue as people grappled with still another horror in a seemingly safe public place.

“We find strength in one another,” Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro (D) said in an interview. “This gunman went in to try and kill as many Jews as possible … We will come through this. And hopefully this feeling of community that we all share today can be channeled into each of us doing our part of rooting out hate.”

The sense of community seen at vigils across the country gave way to still more rancor that stretched to Washington and beyond. More than 30,000 people signed an open letter to President Trump from leaders of a Pittsburgh-based Jewish group saying he would not be welcome unless he denounced white nationalism and “stop targeting and endangering all minorities.”

Trump, who has a lengthy history of incendiary rhetoric toward minorities that has continued since taking office, has condemned the synagogue shooting as “pure evil” and denounced anti-Semitism. He also suggested that the synagogue should have had armed guards, something he has said after other mass shootings. Trump has continued lashing out at news organizations since the shooting, describing the media Monday as being responsible for “great anger in our Country,” comments he made the same day a third suspected explosive device was delivered to CNN in less than a week.

While the White House and Trump’s allies have sought to push back against suggestions his rhetoric has contributed to the country’s spasms of violence, a grieving Rabbi Jeffrey Myers directly linked Saturday’s massacre at his Tree of Life synagogue to the rhetoric of U.S. politicians.

“It starts with speech,” Myers said to loud applause at a Sunday-evening vigil attended by two U.S. senators. “It has to start with you as our leaders. My words are not intended as political fodder. I address all equally. Stop the words of hate.”

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders on Monday said Trump and first lady Melania Trump planned to visit Pennsylvania on Tuesday to “express the support of the American people and grieve with Pittsburgh community.” Sanders, who called the shooting “an act of evil,” also defended Trump amid criticism that he has stoked divisions by refusing to tone down his rhetoric in the wake of the shooting and last week’s mail bombs targeting the president’s critics.

“The very first thing that the president did was to condemn the attacks, both in Pittsburgh and in the pipe bombs,” Sanders said. “The very first thing the media did was blame the president and make him responsible for these ridiculous acts.”

She added: “You can’t start putting the responsibility of individuals on anybody but the individual who carries out the crime.”

In Pittsburgh, the man authorities said carried out the crime was someone who seemed to leave little imprint on those he encountered over the years. Two of Bowers’s classmates at Baldwin High School reached by the Washington Post said his photo appeared along with others in the Class of ’90 – a large class of about 380 students – in the yearbook from their junior year there. Neither remembers him.

“Everybody I talked to didn’t remember him,” said classmate John Korpiel, of Wexford, Pa. “He must have been a real loner or something.”

The Baldwin-Whitehall School District issued a statement saying Bowers attended Baldwin High School from August 1986 to November 1989. Randal A. Lutz, the superintendent, said he withdrew from school in 1989 and did not graduate. Lutz also asked that attention remain on the victims, rather than the alleged attacker, something often said after mass shootings when media scrutiny often focuses intensely on the people who carried out the violence.

“It is my firm belief that our focus must remain, not on the gunman, but on honoring the lives of the victims and offering our unwavering support to the victims’ families,” Lutz said.

Myers, the rabbi, on Monday gave horrifying new details of the attack. Speaking on NBC’s “Today” show and separately on CNN, Myers – who this summer had written on the synagogue blog that national leaders need to do more to stop mass shootings — said the morning Shabbat services had started normally when suddenly he heard a loud noise. He thought it might be a metal coat rack crashing to the floor — possibly because an elderly congregant had fallen.

Then he saw three people from another congregation running on the stairs and heard semi-automatic gunfire. He told everyone to “drop to the floor, don’t utter a sound, and don’t move,” he told CNN.

He said he hoped the heavy oak pews in the sanctuary would provide some protection. He then ushered the people in the front pews toward exits or closets where they could hide. But there were eight people in the rear pews of the sanctuary, he said, and when he turned back toward them he heard the gunfire getting louder, and realized it was no longer safe to be there. He went upstairs to the choir loft, and called 911, and stayed on the line for about 20 minutes, he said. He hid in a bathroom that had no lock on it.

“I heard him execute my congregants,” he told NBC. “I didn’t watch it. I couldn’t watch it,”

Investigators recovered three handguns, two rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition from Bowers’s residence, a law enforcement official said, which adds to the four weapons authorities said they recovered at the synagogue. Police have said Bowers was taken into custody after a shootout with police that seriously injured some of the officers. Myers said he was rescued by SWAT officers before Bowers was taken into custody.

“I do live with regret,” Myers told CNN. “I wish I could have done more.”

Berman, Selk and Wang reported from Washington. Amy B Wang, Joel Achenbach, Annie Gowen, Shawn Boburg, Alice Crites, Felicia Sonmez, Julie Tate, Sari Horwitz and Matt Zapotosky in Washington contributed to this report. 

To read the story with pictures and graphics visit the Washington Post – Accused Synagogue Gunman.

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