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Police say accused Tree of Life synagogue shooter talked about killing Jews

Memorials for shooting victims outside the Tree of Life synagogue.
Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh police officers who responded to the synagogue building during a shooting three years ago that killed 11 people told a judge Tuesday that defendant Robert Bowers made several references to killing Jews.

Officer Stephen Mescan was the first to testify in what is expected to be a two-day hearing into whether prosecutors will be allowed to use at trial certain statements made by Bowers the day of the October 2018 massacre.

Federal prosecutors played dozens of snippets from police radio transmissions from the scene, including one in which Mescan said: “Suspect is talking about ‘all these Jews need to die.’" Mescan told U.S. District Judge Donetta W. Ambrose that Bowers made other similar statements that day.

Bowers, who faces more than 60 federal charges, including hate crimes violations, obstruction of religious belief and the use of a firearm during a crime of violence, was not in the Pittsburgh federal courtroom Tuesday. He has pleaded not guilty and faces a possible death penalty if convicted.

Authorities allege Bowers, 49, of Baldwin, Pennsylvania, perpetrated the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history. He also wounded seven, including five police officers, at the Tree of Life synagogue.

Officer Clint Thimons said he asked Bowers why he did it.

“He was very calm and he said he’s had enough and that Jews are killing our children and the Jews had to die,” Thimons testified.

A third officer, David Blahut, said he did not ask Bowers questions because he had not been advised of his rights, but after being taken into custody Bowers told him “these people are committing genocide on my people and I want to kill Jews.”

Investigators say Bowers opened fire with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons during worship services inside the building, killing eight men and three women. He was arrested after a police tactical team tracked him down and shot him twice in the shoulder and once in the leg.

Three separate congregations — Tree of Life, Dor Hadash, and New Light — were conducting Sabbath services in different areas of the large building in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood when the attack happened.

Mescan said that when he and other tactical officers entered the building, they saw to their right two victims who had been shot in the head several times, and a trail of blood leading to the building's basement.

The hearing is expected to continue Wednesday.