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SWAT officers describe suspect surrender in Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial testimony

The exterior of the Federal Courthouse in Pittsburgh
Gene J. Puskar
This is the Federal Courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh on Monday April 24, 2023.

Prosecutors in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial focused on law enforcement witnesses Friday.

City of Pittsburgh Bureau of Police officer Michael Smidga was the first witness to identify defendant Robert Bowers as the gunman. Pittsburgh SWAT team operator and tactical commander Stephen Mescan and Pittsburgh Bureau of Police officer and SWAT team operator Clint Thimons described the team’s entry into the synagogue and apprehension of the suspect.

On October 27, 2018, a gunman walked into the Tree of Life synagogue and shot and killed 11 Jewish worshipers and injured six people, including four police officers. Robert Bowers has been charged with 63 federal counts, including 11 counts of a hate crime that resulted in death. Bowers has attempted to plead guilty to the charges in exchange for a sentence of life in prison but prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.

Mescan and Thimons both made their way through the synagogue’s complex floor plan the morning of the shooting, checking rooms for the shooter and victims as they went. Both ended up on the top floor, where the defendant was barricaded in a classroom.

After two rounds of gunfire and what Mescan described as an “enormous” volume of rifle fire, the defendant agreed to crawl out of the room and surrender. He identified himself as Robert Bowers and gave his age and date of birth. He also told officers that he had two Glock handguns strapped to his waist and ankle, but had left the AR-15-style rifle in the classroom. An alarm-clock-like device called a “Screaming Meanie” was also found on the scene.

Thimons told the jury he asked Bowers “Why he did this?” Bowers responded with a slew of antisemitic statements including that “they were killing our children” and “all Jews need to die.”

Thimons said Bowers’ tone was conversational and matter of fact, “As if he wanted that to be put out there.”

At the time, police were concerned that there may be more than one gunman, so Mescan said he directed Thimons to tell the defendant they had him on video entering the synagogue “with his buddy” and they needed to know where he was.

Thimons noted that video didn’t exist, but they were hoping to see what Bowers’ response was. Thimons said Bowers seemed confused by the question and said he was there alone.

“He wanted to be very clear that he was by himself and this was his doing,” Mescan said.

Mescan was the first prosecution witness to be cross-examined by the defense attorneys. During opening statements, the defense said it planned to question few witnesses, if any.

Under questioning from defense attorney Elisa Long, Mescan clarified that the Screaming Meanie was not an explosive device. Mescan also confirmed that he heard the defendant, Bowers, make antisemitic statements at the scene of the crime.

Defense attorney Judy Clarke asked Thimons for additional information about Bowers’ antisemitic statements. Thimons said it sounded like he was repeating the word “hiss,” a potential reference to the refugee resettlement group HIAS.

Prosecutors also began to dig into the defendant’s history of making antisemitic remarks on social media.

Federal Bureau of Investigations Special Agent Brian Collins testified that records show Bowers logged into his Gab account for the last time at 9:47 a.m. on Oct. 27, 2018.

Pamela Browning, an intelligence analyst supervisor at the Pennsylvania Criminal Intelligence Center, created a report for Pittsburgh police that included some of Bowers’ posts, including one he made before entering the synagogue.

Browning read Bowers' post aloud: “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.”

Julia Zenkevich reports on Allegheny County government for 90.5 WESA. She first joined the station as a production assistant on The Confluence, and more recently served as a fill-in producer for The Confluence and Morning Edition. She’s a life-long Pittsburgher, and attended the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at