Pittsburgh synagogue shooting: suspect Robert Bowers charged with 11 counts of murder

  • The 46-year-old local man also charged with 18 other offences
  • Trump says temple should have had ‘protection inside’

Eleven people were killed and six wounded in a shooting at a synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighbourhood of Pittsburgh on Saturday.

Donald Trump called the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue “a wicked act of mass murder” and decried antisemitism in all forms. He staged a campaign rally in Illinois as scheduled.

The suspected gunman was identified as Robert Bowers, a Pittsburgh resident who is reportedly 46 years old. He was taken to hospital in the city and reported to be in fair condition.

Federal prosecutors have charged Bowers with 29 charges, including obstructing the exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death, 11 counts of using a firearm to commit murder, weapons offences and seriously injuring police officers. The FBI was investigating the shooting as a federal hate crime.

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“Please know that justice in this case will be swift and it will be severe,” Scott Brady, the chief federal prosecutor in western Pennsylvania, said at a news conference, characterizing the slaughter as a “terrible and unspeakable act of hate”.

The identities of the dead were not immediately released but Wendell Hissrich, Pittsburgh’s public safety director, told an afternoon news conference no children were killed. The toll of wounded did not include the suspect, he said.

The suspect appeared to have far-right views. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, the local CBS affiliate KDJA reported that a “white male [with] a beard … walked in yelling ‘All Jews must die’.” Social media accounts in the name of Robert Bowers contained antisemitic rants.

“Today the nightmare has hit home here in the city of Pittsburgh,” Hissrich said.

An emergency call reported the shooting at 9.54am ET and officers were dispatched a minute later. Two officers were shot and wounded when they arrived at the synagogue, Hissrich said.

Bob Jones, FBI special agent in charge, said the suspect was leaving the synagogue when he was engaged by the officers, having carried out the shootings inside. He retreated into the building, where two officers were injured before the suspect’s surrender.

Jones said the suspect had an assault rifle and three handguns. He could not confirm all were used. Bowers was not previously known to law enforcement, Jones said, adding that though people had been “brutally murdered by a gunman targeting them simply because of their faith”, the gunman’s full motive was not yet known.

Dr Dan Yealy of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center did not divulge the identities of those wounded but did detail the injuries they suffered. The two non-officers injured were a 61-year-old woman and a 70-year-old man, he said. The man was in critical condition after suffering gunshot wounds to the torso. The four officers all remained in hospital.

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In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Jeff Finkelstein, chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, told reporters a little more than half of the Jewish community in the greater Pittsburgh area lived in and around Squirrel Hill. Michael Eisenberg, a past president of the Tree of Life synagogue, said there were three services in the main building on Saturday morning, with 30 to 40 people in two larger services and about 15 in a smaller one. The Pennsylvania attorney general, Josh Shapiro, later said the shooting occurred during a baby naming ceremony.

“We’ve never had any threats,” Eisenberg said, adding that the synagogue had nonetheless consulted the Department of Homeland Security and other synagogues about precautions. Finkelstein told reporters there had been “lots of training on things like active shooters, and we’ve looked at hardening facilities as much as possible”.

“This should not be happening, period,” he said. “This should not be happening in a synagogue.”

Robert Bowers.
Robert Bowers. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Trump left Washington for a speaking engagement and a political rally. At Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, he expressed sympathy for the victims of the event then unfolding in Pennsylvania. Asked if gun laws needed to be changed to prevent such incidents, the president said: “If they had protection inside the results would have been far better. If they had some kind of a protection inside the temple, maybe it would have been a much different situation.”

Trump also said people who carried out mass shootings were “wackos” and said he thought the death penalty should be brought “into vogue”.

“It’s a terrible, terrible thing what’s going on with hate in our country, frankly,” the president said, “and all over the world. And something has to be done.”

Trump spoke a day after an avowed supporter of his policies was arrested in Florida and charged over pipe bombs sent to prominent Democrats and critics of the president’s policies.

At a Future Farmers of America event in Indianapolis, Trump strongly condemned the shooting as antisemitic, an “act of pure evil”. Later, speaking to a big crowd at an airport hangar in southern Illinois, he said he was staging the rally because to cancel it would have made “sick, demented people important”. Trump told reporters before the event the suspect was “no supporter of mine”, and said he would visit Pittsburgh. He did not say when.

In Squirrel Hill, residents came together for a candlelit vigil in remembrance of the dead and support of the wounded.

The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, expressed his sympathy while his minister of the diaspora, Naftali Bennett, tweeted that he was “flying to Pittsburgh to be with our sisters and brothers on their darkest hour”.

Trump’s remarks stoked instant debate over whether the shooting could have been prevented. The Pennsylvania governor, Tom Wolf, called the shooting “an absolute tragedy” and added: “We have been saying [this one is too many] for far too long. Dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm’s way. And in the aftermath of this tragedy, we must come together and take action to prevent these tragedies in the future. We cannot accept this violence as normal.”

People gather for a vigil in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
People gather for a vigil in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Photograph: Matt Rourke/AP

At the scene on Saturday morning, a light rain fell as officers cordoned off the area. Chuck Diamond stood at the corner of Murray Street and Northumberland Avenue, wearing a Pittsburgh Pirates cap, doing his best to comfort shocked and grieving people. Until a year ago, he was the rabbi at Tree of Life.

“We were lucky,” he said. “It was the beginning of services and Jews always come late to services.”

Locally, the epithet “Squirrel Hill Jew” has long been used to describe people from this tight-knit liberal enclave, blocks away from Carnegie Mellon University.

“I’m sure everybody in the community feels like it’s an attack on them,” Diamond said, adding that he had feared such an attack for years.

“There are issues we need to address like gun control and people need to keep this in mind when they go to the polls in November,” he said.

Congressman Mike Doyle, who lives in nearby Forest Hills, said: “It’s horrific. I know people that go to church there. One of my employees got married there and her parents go there. It just makes you numb, that’s all.”

In 2016, the Democrat helped lead a sit-in on the House floor, calling for gun control legislation. “You know,” he said, “you have disturbed minds and hate in hearts and guns in their hands and this is what happens and Congress does nothing.”

A Squirrel Hill resident, a graduate student from Germany who did not wish to be named, said it was “the second time I’ve been near the scene of a mass shooting”. The student said she had previously lived near the scene of the 2014 Isla Vista shooting in California, in which six people died.


Martin Pengelly in New York, Lois Beckett in San Francisco and Mike Elk in Pittsburgh

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