PITTSBURGH, PA—A mass shooting at a synagogue in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood on the outskirts of the city left at least 11 people dead and six people injured, including four police officers who were met with gunfire as they responded to a “horrific crime scene.”
Police confirmed the death toll, which included no children, following the 20-minute shooting spree at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the largely residential Squirrel Hill neighborhood. Three of the four police officers were struck by gunfire, but police fired back and disarmed the shooter, authorities said.
The suspected shooter, who reportedly shouted anti-Semitic statements as he fired, has been taken into custody and was being treated at a hospital for multiple gunshot wounds, authorities said. Authorities said the FBI was on the scene and treating the attack as a hate crime. They said it didn't appear that the suspect was known to law enforcement before Saturday's attack.
Scott Brady, the U.S. Attorney in Pittsburgh, identified the suspect as Robert Bowers, 46, of suburban Baldwin. Authorities said Bowers was armed with an assault rifle and three handguns. A senior law enforcement official told The Daily Beast that Bowers has had a permit to carry a firearm since July 2016 and had licenses for multiple weapons.
In a statement Saturday night the Department of Justice said it had charged Bowers with 29 federal charges, including 11 counts of obstruction of exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death, and 11 counts of use of a firearm to commit murder during a crime of violence.
Police have yet to offer details on a motive in the attack, but witnesses cited in local news reports said the alleged shooter shouted, “All Jews must die” upon entering the synagogue. He also reportedly ranted about “killing Jews and how he doesn’t want any of them to live” after being taken into police custody.
The law enforcement official confirmed Bowers joined Gab, a social media site preferred by the far right. On the site, he promoted neo-Nazi conspiracy theories and posted rants about refugees as "invaders." He had posted “Screw your optics. I’m going in” on Gab shortly before the shooting.
Authorities, including local bomb squad units, visited multiple addresses across the Pittsburgh metropolitan area on Saturday. At a small apartment building on McAnulty Drive in suburban Baldwin, police blocked off the area. A Baldwin police officer told The Daily Beast that FBI and ATF were on the way and believed this was the suspect's current home.
At a home on Fieldcrest Drive in suburban Whitehall, where police knocked on the door but found no one home, neighbors who did not want to give their names recognized Bowers from photos and said he would come by to care for a boy in a wheelchair.
The attack took place around 10 a.m. as a naming ceremony for a newborn baby was underway in the synagogue. The first two responding officers who confronted the suspect were met with gunfire and injured. Two SWAT team officers who followed were also injured, authorities said.
Wendell Hissrich, Pittsburgh’s public safety director, became emotional when briefing reporters on the shooting. He described it as a “very horrific crime scene.”
“It’s one of the worst that I’ve seen, and I’ve been on some plane crashes. It’s very bad,” he said. “These incidents usually occur in other cities. Today the nightmare has hit home here in the city of Pittsburgh.”
Authorities said the death toll could have been much worse had responding police officers not shot Bowers during the confrontation.
“Watching those officers running to the danger to remove people and get them to safety, was unbelievable,” Pittsburgh Police Chief Scott Schubert said.
Janice Myers, the wife of Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, told The Daily Beast her husband was leading services when gunfire erupted. She said she and her son had not attended services Saturday because they both have colds, but described immediately feeling “panic” upon first learning of the shooting from a friend.
She said her husband had escaped the attack unharmed but “it’s a very difficult and trying time for the community.”
Recalling the old saying that terrible incidents “happen to other people” and not “people you know,” she said, “They can happen to anybody, but they shouldn’t.”
Andrea Schachner, the wife of congregation president Sam Schachner, told The Daily Beast, “we're just shocked and devastated and praying for all the families that have been affected by the tragedy.”
Jeff Finkelstein, president & CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and a resident of Squirrel Hill, said he believes up to 60 people could have been inside at the time of the shooting.
“I'm just sad. My heart goes out to all these families. This should not be happening period. It should not be happening in a synagogue. It should not be happening in our neighborhood,” he said.
Jean Clickner, who helps lead programming at one of the other synagogues in the building, Dor Hadash, said she is a regular participant in the congregation's Torah study, but that she did not attend today. "One of my friends is dead. One of my other best friends is in the hospital," she said.
"I’m pissed off. I’m just angry," she said. "People have been able to act out their hatred because they’ve been supported and encouraged to do so."
Harry Levinson, also a congregation member at Dor Hadash, was not at shul today and said "it took awhile for us to understand what was going on. We weren’t there, but it did take awhile for it to sink in that there was actually somebody that was crazy enough to go in and shoot people because of his belief in anti-Semitism [and] his hatred of immigrants."
At a vigil for victims of the shooting on Saturday night, a few blocks from the synagogue in the heart of Squirrel Hill, a crowd recited Hebrew prayers and chanted, "an injury to one is an injury to all." Police lights flashed on the perimeter as the rain drizzled onto the crowd of mourners, who spilled into the parking lots of the library and the Jewish Community Center.
Sixteen-year-old Allyssa Starr, her face wet with fresh tears, said she heard about a shooting at a synagogue that morning. "I wondered if it was the one across the street from me or the one where people I knew were taking their SATs."
"It's 2018 and people still hate Jewish people," she said with disbelief. She said she thought anti-Semitism was "something we learned about in school." She added, "I never lived it. I didn't think people could kill [because of] that."
President Trump has called the shooting “far more devastating than anybody originally thought” and said “something has to be done” to prevent such violence.
“It's just a shame to watch this and to see it for so many years, so much of it, it's a shame,” he told reporters outside Joint Base Andrews.
But he dismissed the idea that tightened gun laws could be a solution.
“This has little to do with [gun laws], if you take a look at it, if they had protection inside the results would have been far better,” he said. “If they had some kind of a protection inside the temple, uh, maybe it could have been a very much different situation. But they didn’t. And he was able to do things, unfortunately, that he shouldn’t have been able to do.”
Asked what else could be done to end such attacks, Trump said suggested that “we should stiffen up our laws in terms of the death penalty.”
“I think they should very much bring the death penalty into vogue,” he said.
Trump later told a pool of reporters that the shooting “looks definitely like it’s an anti-Semitic crime.”
“We’re learning a lot about it. It looks definitely like it’s an anti-Semitic crime. And that is something you wouldn’t believe could still be going on,” he said.
News of the shooting sent police around the country scrambling to protect houses of worship out of caution.
Police in New York are “deploying heavy weapons teams” to “houses of worship” across New York City as a precaution, the NYPD said in a statement.
“Additionally, sector cars in every command across New York City will be making additional visits to ensure the safety of all of our residents. Currently, there is no nexus to New York. But these steps are being taken until further information is learned about the events in Pittsburgh by the NYPD.”
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has ordered that all Commonwealth flags throughout the state be lowered to half-staff to honor the victims of the shooting.
“We must all pray and hope for no more loss of life. But we have been saying ‘this one is too many’ for far too long. Dangerous weapons are putting our citizens in harm’s way,” Wolf said in a statement.
— The Daily Beast's Michael Daly contributed to this story