Synagogue suspect appears in court in wheelchair
Pittsburgh – The man accused in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre appeared briefly in federal court in a wheelchair and handcuffs Monday to face charges he killed 11 people in what is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.
Robert Gregory Bowers, who was wounded in a gun battle with police during the shooting rampage, was released from a hospital and wheeled into the courtroom, where he was ordered held without bail for a preliminary hearing on Thursday, when prosecutors will outline their case against him.
During the proceeding, Bowers talked with two court-appointed lawyers, went over documents and confirmed his identity to a judge, saying little more than “Yes” in a soft voice a few times. Courtroom deputies freed one of his hands from cuffs so he could sign paperwork. He did not enter a plea.
He was expressionless.
“It was not the face of villainy that I thought we’d see,” said Jon Pushinsky, a congregant who was in court for the hearing.
Federal prosecutors set in motion plans to seek the death penalty against the 46-year-old truck driver, who authorities say expressed hatred of Jews during the rampage at the Tree of Life synagogue and later told police, “I just want to kill Jews” and “All these Jews need to die.”
After the hearing, U.S. Attorney Scott Brady called the shootings “horrific acts of violence” and added: “Rest assured we have a team of prosecutors working hard to ensure that justice is done.”
Meanwhile, the first funeral – for Cecil Rosenthal and his younger brother, David – was set for Tuesday, and the White House announced President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump will visit the same day to “express the support of the American people and to grieve with the Pittsburgh community.”
The response to Trump’s plans was mixed.
Leaders of a liberal Jewish group in Pittsburgh, Bend the Arc, wrote an open letter to the president, accusing him of contributing to the violence with his words and deeds and saying he was not welcome until he denounced white nationalism.
But Rabbi Jeffrey Myers with the Tree of Life synagogue made clear Trump would be welcome, telling NBC, “It would be my honor to always meet a president of the United States.”
The weekend massacre – which took place 10 days before the midterm elections – heightened tensions around the country, coming just a day after the arrest of the Florida man accused of sending a wave of pipe bombs to Trump critics.
The mail bomb attacks and the bloodshed in Pittsburgh set off debate over whether the corrosive political climate in Washington and beyond contributed to the violence and whether Trump himself bears any blame because of his combative language.
Barry Werber, 76, said he found himself hiding in a dark storage closet as the gunman rampaged through the building, in the tree-lined neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, the historic hub of the city’s Jewish community.
Werber said he hopes Trump doesn’t visit Pittsburgh, noting that the president has embraced the politically fraught label of “nationalist.” He said the Nazis were nationalists.
“It’s part of his program to instigate his base,” Werber said, and “bigots are coming out of the woodwork.”
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, a Democrat, said the White House should contact the victims’ families and ask them if they want the president to come to Pittsburgh. He also warned Trump to stay away when the first funerals are held.
“If the president is looking to come to Pittsburgh, I would ask that he not do so while we are burying the dead,” Peduto said. “Our attention and our focus is going to be on them, and we don’t have public safety that we can take away from what is needed in order to do both.”
Bowers killed eight men and three women before a police tactical team shot him, authorities said. Six other people were wounded, including four officers. Four of the wounded remained hospitalized Sunday night, two in critical condition.
The president of the hospital where a wounded Bowers was taken said that he was ranting against Jews even as Jewish staff members were treating him.
“He’s taken into my hospital and he’s shouting, ‘I want to kill all the Jews!’ and the first three people who are taking care of him are Jewish,” Jeffery Cohen of Allegheny General Hospital told WTAE-TV. “Ain’t that a kick in the pants?”
Cohen, who is also Jewish and a member of Tree of Life synagogue, said he stopped by Bowers’ room.
“I just asked how he was doing, was he in pain, and he said no, he was fine,” he told WTAE. “He asked who I was, and I said, ‘I’m Dr. Cohen, the president of the hospital,’ and I turned around and left.”
He said the FBI agent outside Bowers’ room told him he didn’t think he could have done that. “And I said, ‘If you were in my shoes I’m sure you could have,’” Cohen said.
Bowers was charged in a 29-count federal criminal complaint that included counts of obstructing the exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death – a hate crime – and using a gun to commit murder.
Bowers was also charged under state law with criminal homicide, aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation.
Just minutes before the synagogue attack, Bowers apparently took to social media to rage against HIAS, a Jewish organization that resettles refugees under contract with the U.S. government.
“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” he is believed to have written on Gab.com, a social media site favored by right-wing extremists. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
HIAS had recently weighed in on the migrant caravan heading toward the U.S. from Central America, urging the Trump administration to “provide all asylum seekers the opportunity to present their claims as required by law.” The president has vilified the caravan and pledged to stop the migrants.
One of the targets of the mail bomb attacks last week was liberal Jewish philanthropist George Soros, who has been accused by far-right conspiracy theorists of paying migrants to join the caravan.
The youngest of the 11 dead was 54, the oldest 97. The toll included a husband and wife, professors, dentists and physicians.
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 investigation and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Bowers was a long-haul trucker who worked for himself, authorities said. Little else was known about Bowers, who had no apparent criminal record.
Lauer reported from Philadelphia. Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Mark Scolforo in Pittsburgh, Michael Balsamo in Washington, Jennifer Peltz in New York and Michael Rubinkam in northeastern Pennsylvania.