The fourth day of testimony in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre trial started with the recounting of gunshots and shards of glass and shrapnel by witnesses including Pittsburgh police Officer Clint Smidga.
Smidga testified Friday about hearing a bullet whiz past his ear and seeing another one hit the hand of his partner, Officer Dan Mead, as they ran toward the entrance of the Tree of Life synagogue building in Squirrel Hill at about 10 a.m. on Oct. 27, 2018, responding to reports of an active shooter there.
After those shots were fired at them by a person or persons inside the glass doors, both officers retreated to cover. His gun drawn, and his ear and face cut and bleeding, Smidga peered in a window. What he saw coming toward him inside, through a doorway, was the barrel of a rifle. Then the rifle’s shoulder strap. And then …
“I saw that man over there,” Smigda testified, looking across the courtroom at the defendant, Robert Bowers, whom he identified by his blue collared shirt and blue sweater.
The U.S. government is seeking the death penalty for Bowers, who is accused of killing 11 worshippers from three congregations at the Tree of Life building in the worst attack on Jewish people in U.S. history. Bowers, who told police he hates Jews, is not denying that he was the shooter. To put him to death for it, the government must prove very specific charges including obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs involving an attempt to kill.
Smidga described waiting for the person with a rifle to fully present himself. “I don’t think he knew I was there,” he testified. “He started to look my way.” The officer raised his standard-issue .45-caliber Glock pistol and, “That’s when I started firing.”
The prosecution played a recording of the police radio transmission when the officer reports, “I just shot him three times.” He believed he’d hit him. Bowers fired back. Then Smidga, as had Mead, withdrew a distance and received some medical attention.
Meanwhile, the SWAT team was arriving on the chaotic scene, as was described by the government’s next witness, Stephen Mescan, the tactical commander for the Pittsburgh SWAT team. He recounted in great detail his and his officers’ entry and quick sweep of the interior of the building, which he likened at one point to a “labyrinth.” It smelled of gunshots.
Reporting each development on the radio to time stamp everything, the SWAT operators gradually discovered three dead … then three more … then two more … then three more for 11 dead, having no idea at the time how many more they might find.
They also found and evacuated survivors, including two who had hidden in the basement. On the main floor they treated and evacuated one woman who was bleeding from her arm, which seemed to be pointing up. So Mescan and his officers continued to work their way up, along a trail of blood and past a discarded ammunition magazine, toward and to what he thought of as the top floor. There, down a hall past a classroom, SWAT made contact with a person in a room who started shooting at them, and they blasted back.
“Shots fired! Shots fired!” Mescan was heard to report on a recording of the police radio at 10:53:42 a.m. One officer, Timothy Matson, was hit several times and had to be dragged down the narrow hall and downstairs for medical attention.
After a second gunfight, Mescan testified, he relayed on the radio that the shooter, crawling injured out of the room and into custody, had just told Officer Clint Thimons that his name was Robert Bowers and that he was 46 and gave his birth date. Mescan testified, “He made angry statements about, ‘All these Jews must die.’ ” Bowers also “spontaneously” spoke about Jews “killing children” and made hateful statements “multiple” times, Mescan testified.
For the first time during the testimony phase of the trial that began on Tuesday, the defense had questions for a government witness, asking Mescan about an electronic timer device he’d described as being from Bowers and having Mescan clarify that the bomb squad had determined it was not explosive nor linked to anything that was.
Public defender Elisa Long also asked Mescan about the statements he radioed that Bowers had made about Jews. Some had been relayed to him to broadcast on the radio, but the one about “All these Jews need to die”? “I heard it,” Mescan said.
Thimons was just the third witness of the day when at 2:35 p.m. he began his testimony. That included him entering the building and discovering Tree of Life Congregation’s Rabbi Jeffrey Myers sheltering in a bathroom and getting him out, then continuing moving toward where he heard his colleagues exchange shots with Bowers. He wound up in the second gunfight and being the officer who talked Bowers out of the room. He also helped cuff him, took two guns from him and dragged him to a room for medics to attend to him.
His testimony was consistent with Mescan’s about the things Bowers said, including Bowers saying he was acting alone. Still worried there could be other shooters, the officers lied to Bowers and said they had video of him entering the building with an accomplice. “He said, ‘No, that must be some f—ing Jew. I was by myself.’ And he took total ownership.”
Defense attorney and anti-death penalty specialist Judy Clarke asked him a few questions about those statements. Then she said, “Thank you very much for your service that day.”
The government called two more witnesses, FBI Special Agent Brian Collins, who testified about some email and password information connected to Bowers, and Pamela Browning of the Pennsylvania Criminal Intelligence Center, who on Oct. 27, 2018, had generated a biographical data sheet about Bowers for the Pittsburgh police. That report included bio information and posts about Jewish people on the site Gab.com.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you have worked hard all week,” U.S. District Judge Robert Colville said at about 4:30 p.m., thanking them and saying the trial will resume Monday morning. It is expected to take until the end of July.
This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Union Progress in a collaboration supported by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.
Bob, a feature writer and editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, is currently on strike and serving as interim editor of the Pittsburgh Union Progress. Contact him at email@example.com.