Man opens fire at Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11
A gunman armed with an assault rifle killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue during Saturday morning services in what the Antidefamation League called “likely the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States.”
Law enforcement officials said Robert Bowers – a 46-year-old man with a history of making virulently anti-semitic statements online – was taken into custody after a gun battle with police and is expected to face federal hate crime charges.
“Justice in this case will be swift and it will be severe,” said Scott Brady, the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania. Brady said Bowers could be charged soon for what he called a “terrible and unspeakable act of hate.”
Authorities described a rampage at the Tree of Life synagogue, the city’s oldest Jewish congregation, that was stunning in its savagery.
“This is the most horrific crime scene I’ve seen in 22 years with the Federal Bureau of Investigation,” said Robert Allan Jones, special agent in charge of the FBI’S Pittsburgh field office. “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.”
All 11 people killed were adults, Pittsburgh Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said. Six people were also wounded, four of them police officers responding to the gunfire, he said.
Witnesses told police that Bowers burst into the synagogue shouting antisemitic statements and began firing. Hissrich said authorities began to receive calls about an active shooter at the synagogue at 9:54 a.m., and officers were dispatched one minute later.
Jones said that Bowers entered the synagogue, gunned down 11 people and was leaving when he encountered responding officers. He fired at an officer who was wounded and then went back into the synagogue to hide, Jones said. More officers responded, and after an exchange of gunfire, Bowers was taken to a hospital with multiple gunshot wounds, authorities said.
By Saturday afternoon, members of the synagogue were gathering at a grief center waiting to
hear about friends and family members caught in the shooting.
“It’s one of my biggest fears,” said Chuck Diamond, who worked as a rabbi at Tree of Life for seven years. “When I was leading the congregation, I always had in the back of my mind that something like this will happen. It’s a terrible thing to feel.”
Hissrich declined to say whether Bowers was speaking to authorities, and it was not immediately clear if he had an attorney.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions called the shooting “reprehensible and utterly repugnant to the values of this nation. Accordingly, the Department of Justice will file hate crimes and other criminal charges against the defendant, including charges that could lead to the death penalty.”
Bowers appeared to have repeatedly targeted Jewish people using an account on the social media site gab, which is popular with white supremacists and far-right users. Gab deactivated an account under Bowers’ name shortly after the shooting Saturday.
Messages posted by the account under his name, recovered before it was deactivated, included white supremacist symbols and anti-semitic messaging. Recent postings specifically focused on the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, known as HIAS, which is one of nine organizations that works with the federal government to resettle refugees in American communities.
“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in,” reads a posting on the account that appears to have been published just before the shooting Saturday morning.
Mark Hetfield, president and chief executive of HIAS, has no formal relationship with the Tree of Life synagogue, but has helped hundreds of refugees resettle in the Pittsburgh area in recent years.
“Our agency is the oldest refugee agency in the world, and we’ve seen some horrible dark periods in our time, and we’ve seen plenty of hate, and refugees by definition are fleeing hate,” Hetfield said. “But the United States is supposed to be a place of refuge, and a synagogue is supposed to be a place of refuge.”
The account that appeared to belong to Bowers was rife with bigoted messaging.
President Donald Trump on Saturday described the shooting in Pittsburgh as “pure evil” and an “anti-semitic act.”
“It looks definitely like it’s an anti-semitic crime,” Trump said Saturday afternoon. “That is something you wouldn’t believe could still be going on.”
Earlier Saturday, Trump also suggested that armed security at the synagogue might have prevented the attack. He has regularly suggested that after shooting rampages, even following some high-profile massacres that occurred despite law enforcement officers being present.
Police in Washington, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles all said they were increasing patrols at synagogues and other houses of worship following the Pittsburgh attack as precautionary measures.
Women in Pittsburgh hug after a mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue on Saturday. The suspect interrupted a baby-naming service at about 10 a.m. Witnesses told police he burst in shouting anti-semitic slurs and began firing.
People gather on a corner near the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. During a brief standoff, the man ranted about needing to kill Jews, police dispatchers said.