AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Synagogue Massacre Suspect Appears In Court As Harrowing Tales Emerge

October 29, 2018 - 4:45 pm
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PITTSBURGH (WCBS 880/AP) — The man accused in the Pittsburgh Synagogue massacre appeared in federal court Monday in a wheelchair and handcuffs to face charges he killed 11 people.

Robbert Gregory Bowers, who was wounded in a gun battle with police during the shooting – which is believed to be the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history – was released from a hospital Monday morning and wheeled into the courtroom just hours later.

He was ordered held without bail for a preliminary hearing on Thursday, when prosecutors will outline their case against him.

During the court appearance, 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.

“He had a poker face when he came out, it looks to me like he understood the gravity of the situation,” said CBS News correspondent Bill Rehkopf.

Bowers opened fire with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons, killing eight men and three women before a tactical police team tracked him down and shot him, according to state and federal affidavits made public on Sunday.

Rehkopf reported that Bowers posted multiple anti-Semitic messages on social media, and had posted one just a few minutes before he opened fire. He expressed hatred of Jews during the rampage and later told police that "I just want to kill Jews" and that "all these Jews need to die," authorities said.

CBS News Technology Consultant Larry Maggid explained that the Gab.com, where Bower’s posts were made, was “a place where people with ideas like those of the alleged shooter were comfortable to express them and to discuss them.”

The site has been placed on a 48-hour ban and claims to be working with the Department of Justice and FBI to “bring justice to an alleged terrorist.”

While Maggid speculated that the site could be shut down for the anti-Islamic, anti-Semitic and anti-gay posts, he said it would be unlikely due to First Amendment protections.

“Private companies are not bound by the First Amendment –Facebook and Twitter and Google – they have the right to allow whatever they want,” Maggid said, adding it’s very difficult to regulate speech.

All three congregations were conducting Sabbath services when the attack began just before 10 a.m. Saturday in the tree-lined residential neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, about 10 minutes from downtown Pittsburgh and the hub of the city's Jewish community.

Speaking at a vigil in Pittsburgh on Sunday night, Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said about a dozen people had gathered in the main sanctuary when Bowers walked in and began shooting. Seven of his congregants were killed, he said.

"My holy place has been defiled," he said.

On Sunday, survivors of the attack recounted the events to news reporters.

As Barry Werber walked into the Tree of Life Synagogue, he passed a cart carrying glassware and whiskey meant for the baby-naming ceremony scheduled at Dor Hadash, one of three small congregations that worship there.

He went downstairs, where his New Light Congregation meets, and found only a few people gathered. Melvin Wax, 88, was chatting up front with David Rosenthal, who had intellectual disabilities and spent hours helping out there. Rosenthal soon went upstairs for his own service at Tree of Life.

Two other men, Daniel Stein and Richard Gottfried, were checking on food supplies in the kitchen for the breakfast New Light planned to host.

Minutes later, Werber found himself hiding in a dark storage closet after an anti-Semitic gunman tore through the building and opened fire, killing Wax, Rosenthal, Stein, Gottfried and seven others across two floors.

"I don't know why he thinks the Jews are responsible for all the ills in the world, but he's not the first and he won't be the last," Werber, 76, said Sunday. "Unfortunately, that's our burden to bear. It breaks my heart."

In the basement, four members of New Light were just starting to pray — with the two others in the kitchen — when they heard crashing coming from upstairs, looked out the door and saw a body on the staircase, Werber recalled Sunday in an interview at his home.

Rabbi Jonathan Perlman closed the door and pushed them into a large supply closet, he said. As gunshots echoed upstairs, Werber called 911 but was afraid to say anything, for fear of making any noise.

When the shots subsided, he said, Wax opened the door, only to be shot and fall back inside.

"There were three shots, and he falls back into the room where we were," he said. "The gunman walks in."

Apparently unable to see Werber and the other congregants in the darkness, Bowers walked back out.

Werber called the gunman "a maniac" and "a person who has no control of his baser instincts."

Perlman, who also spoke at the vigil Sunday night, said New Light lost three congregants.

"These three men, they cannot be replaced," said Perlman, his voice breaking. "But we will not be broken. We will not be ruined."

Officials released the names of all 11 of the dead , including Rosenthal and his brother, and a husband and wife. The youngest was 54, the oldest 97. The toll included professors, dentists and physicians.

Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54, were intellectually disabled and lived together near the synagogue.

"Cecil's laugh was infectious. David was so kind and had such a gentle spirit. Together, they looked out for one another. They were inseparable," said Chris Schopf, vice president of residential supports for ACHIEVA, which helped the brothers live independently. "Most of all, they were kind, good people with a strong faith and respect for everyone around."

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 ongoing investigation, and who spoke Sunday on the condition of anonymity.

Bowers was charged with 11 state counts of criminal homicide, six counts of aggravated assault and 13 counts of ethnic intimidation. He was also charged in a 29-count federal criminal complaint that included counts of obstructing the free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death — a federal hate crime — and using a firearm to commit murder.

CBS News' Bill Rehkopf speculated that the preliminary hearing for Bowers, currently scheduled for Nov. 1, will be delayed. However, Bowers will remain behind bars until he is due in court.

Federal prosecutors intend to pursue the death penalty against Bowers, Brady said.

Of the six survivors, four remained in the hospital Sunday night, and two — including a 40-year-old officer — were in critical condition.