11 die in attack on Pa. synagogue
AG: Suspect held, to face hate charges and death penalty
PITTSBURGH — A man with a history of making anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant social media posts burst into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire on Saturday morning services that included a babynaming ceremony, killing 11 people and wounding six more, authorities said.
The shooting, which began shortly before 10 a.m. EDT, was probably “the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States” and is a worrying new peak in violence against Jewish Americans in recent years, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which has monitored anti-Semitism in the U.S. for more than a century.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said federal prosecutors, who are investigating the killings as a hate crime, could seek the death penalty against the suspected shooter, who was in custody.
The shooting unfolded over 20 minutes at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
The gunman was armed with an assault rifle and three handguns, officials said. He yelled, “All Jews must die!” as he walked into the synagogue, police told local television reporters.
The suspected gunman, identified as Robert Bowers, 46, of Pittsburgh, wounded two of the first officers who arrived at the scene as he tried to leave and later wounded two more SWAT officers inside the synagogue before he was shot and taken into custody, officials said.
Watching officers run into the danger “and remove people and get them to safety was unbelievable,” Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert said at a news conference.
“Without their courage, this tragedy would have been far worse,” said Wendell Hissrich, Allegheny County public safety director. None of the dead were children. Officials said two of the wounded were in critical condition.
The suspect remained hospitalized Saturday afternoon.
“The Department of Justice will file hate crimes and other criminal charges against the defendant, including charges that could lead to the death penalty,” Sessions said in a statement Saturday afternoon.
Bob Jones, the FBI special agent in charge of the Pittsburgh office, called the shooting “the most horrific crime scene I’ve seen in 22 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
“Members of the Tree of Life Synagogue conducting a peaceful service in their place of worship were brutally murdered by a gunman targeting them simply because of their faith,” he said.
Because the shooting is being treated as a hate crime, the FBI quickly took charge of the investigation, coordinating with local law enforcement, authorities said.
Bowers probably acted alone and had no known criminal record, Jones said.
A social media user under Bowers’ name had called Jews “the children of satan” and made posts before the attack alluding to neo-Nazi ideology and threatening HIAS, a refugee agency originally founded to assist Jews.
Law enforcement officials familiar with the case confirmed that they believe the posts were made by the shooting suspect.
“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” said a post made at 9:49 a.m. Saturday — just five minutes before police re- ceived the first 911 call from the synagogue.
“I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
The post was made on Gab, a small social media service that is popular with white nationalists and other far-right users.
The reference to “optics” is a significant one among the small world of white nationalists and signals that the suspect had a familiarity with the political dynamics of the American white-nationalist movement. It alludes to debate among farright figures over whether to avoid violence or aggression, which often draws negative attention to the movement from the general public.
Mark Hetfield, chief executive of HIAS, said he was “in a state of shock” to hear that his organization was named by the shooter.
“It’s horrible,” Hetfield said. The refugee resettlement group organized a “refugee Shabbat” event last week at which more than 300 synagogues across the country came together to “celebrate our tradition of welcoming refugees.” He said it was unclear if the Pittsburgh synagogue participated.
President Donald Trump called for armed guards at synagogues and implied that lax security by the synagogue was at least partially to blame for the high death toll.
“If they had protection inside, the results would have been far better,” he said. “If there was an armed guard inside the temple, they would have been able to stop him, maybe there would have been nobody killed, except for him, frankly.”
People hold candles as they gather for a vigil in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation.