Pittsburgh synagogue gunman told SWAT he wanted all Jews to die, criminal complaint says

10 months 2 weeks 6 days ago Sunday, October 28 2018 Oct 28, 2018 Sunday, October 28, 2018 2:22:00 PM CDT October 28, 2018 in News
Source: CNN
By: Nicole Chavez and Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN

(CNN) - Not long after gunfire broke out, police officers in tactical gear rushed into a synagogue in the heart of Pittsburgh's Jewish community.

For 20 minutes, the officers encountered dead bodies and wounded worshipers and exchanged gunfire with a man with an assault rifle, said Robert Jones, the FBI's special agent in charge of the Pittsburgh office.

"This is the most horrific crime scene I've seen in 22 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation," Jones said.

The Anti-Defamation League called it the deadliest attack on Jews in this country in US history.

Authorities released the names of the 11 victims Sunday, all of whom were from Pennsylvania. Joyce Fienberg, 75, Rose Mallinger, 97, Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, Cecil Rosenthal, 59, David Rosenthal, 54, Daniel Stein, 71, Melvin Wax, 88, and Irving Younger, 69, were from Pittsburgh. Richard Gottfried, 65, was from Ross Township and Bernice Simon, 84, and Sylvan Simon, 86, were from Wilkinsburg, Allegheny County Chief Medical Examiner Karl Williams said.

The Rosenthals were brothers, and the Simons were married, Williams' office said.

The suspected gunman, Robert Bowers, told a SWAT officer while receiving medical care that he wanted all Jews to die and that Jews "were committing genocide to his people," a criminal complaint filed in Allegheny County says.

During his shootout with police, Bowers told a policeman, "They're committing genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews," an FBI affidavit says.

Dozens of people had arrived to the Tree of Life synagogue that morning to celebrate Shabbat services. By dawn Sunday, crowds took to the streets of the historically Jewish Squirrel Hill neighborhood despite the rain to light candles and mourn the people killed there.

The attack is the deadliest on a Jewish community in US history, the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement. Authorities believe the suspect acted alone. Bowers remains in the hospital, under guard, after undergoing surgery, Jones said. He's in fair condition.

He faces 29 federal charges, some of which are punishable by death, and he's scheduled to make his first court appearance Monday afternoon.

A trail of hate

For weeks before the Tree of Life shooting, Bower frequently targeted Jews in his posts on Gab, a social media platform that bills itself as "the free speech social network."

The 46-year-old resident of suburban Baldwin used anti-Semitic slurs, complained that President Donald Trump was surrounded by too many Jewish people and blamed Jews for helping migrant caravans in Central America. He posted pictures of his handgun collection.

Gab has denied any support for violence and said its mission is "to defend free expression and individual liberty online for all people." Gab said it has backed up the suspect's profile data, suspended the account and contacted the FBI.

Bowers posted constantly on the platform. Four hours before the shooting he posted about Trump. Minutes before storming inside the building, he logged onto Gab again and wrote to his followers.

"I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered," he wrote. "Screw your optics, I'm going in."

A day of worship turned into chaos

It was a peaceful morning when Squirrel Hill residents heard screams and gunshots coming from the synagogue. In minutes, police officers were arriving, urging them to stay indoors.

While it's unclear how many people were inside the synagogue, Michael Eisenberg, the immediate past president of the Tree of Life congregation, said that nearly a hundred people could have been attending simultaneous services for three different congregations.

"On a day like today, the door is open," Eisenberg told a reporter for CNN affiliate KDKA. "It's a religious service. You could walk in and out. Only on the high holidays is there a police presence at the entrance."

Police say they received 911 calls about an active shooter around 10 a.m. Only five minutes had passed since Bowers made his last social media post.

A gunman, wearing a green vest or green jacket, came into the lobby and began firing, officers said in radio traffic recordings posted on Broadcastify.

As officers made their way to the synagogue, they were told a caller heard 20 to 30 shots from the lobby. People were running and hiding throughout the building.

Police initially confronted a man armed with "assault-style rifle" as he was leaving. Two police officers spotted him and he opened fire, the criminal complaint says.

He shot one of them in the hand before hiding inside the synagogue, the document states. The other officer received several cuts to his face from shrapnel and broken glass.

Bowers used a Colt AR-15 rifle and three Glock handguns during the attack, police said.

Gunman surrenders

When officers in tactical gear entered the building, they found the victims' bodies and survivors hiding. They rescued at least two people from the basement and scrambled to evacuate people as they looked for the gunman.

SWAT officers found Bowers on the third floor of the building, a criminal complaint says. They exchanged fire until Bowers surrendered, authorities said.

Investigators searched Bowers' home with a robot Saturday, and they searched his vehicle Sunday, the FBI says. They're also looking for surveillance footage from the area that could provide clues, the FBI's Jones said.

Bowers is facing at least 29 federal charges, including 11 counts of obstruction of exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death, plus 11 counts of using a firearm to commit murder. A conviction on any could be punishable by death, US Attorney Scott Brady said.

Pertaining to his shootout with police, Bowers also faces four counts of obstruction of exercise of religious beliefs resulting in bodily injury to a public safety officer, and three counts of use and discharge of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.

He was also charged with 11 state offenses, including attempted homicide and aggravated assault, a criminal complaint shows.

"These incidents usually occur in other cities," Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said Saturday. "Today, the nightmare has hit home in the city of Pittsburgh."

Two police officers, two SWAT officers and two other people were wounded in the shooting, Hissrich said. Bowers shot three of them, authorities said. One officer was released Saturday, another is expected to leave the hospital Sunday and two remain hospitalized, Police Chief Scott Schubert said.

Five victims were being treated at two Pittsburgh hospitals, health officials said. Two were in critical condition: a 55-year-old man with multiple injuries to his extremities; and a 70-year-old man with gunshot wounds to the torso. The older man has had two surgeries and will require a third, officials said.

President Donald Trump ordered flags flown at half-staff in honor of the synagogue shooting victims.

In 2017, anti-Semitic incidents in the United States surged nearly 60%, according to the Anti-Defamation League. It found 1,986 cases of harassment, vandalism or physical assault against Jews and Jewish institutions last year.

In a statement, the ADL said the attack was the deadliest on the Jewish community in US history. Previously, the deadliest attack was in Seattle in 1985, when David Lewis Rice beat and stabbed Charles Goldmark and his family, who Rice mistakenly thought were Jewish, the ADL said.

The-CNN-Wire
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