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Defense witness: Pittsburgh synagogue shooter has history of trauma, mental illness

In this courtroom sketch, Robert Bowers, the suspect in the 2018 synagogue massacre, is on trial in federal court on Tuesday, May 30, 2023, in Pittsburgh. Bowers could face the death penalty if convicted of some of the 63 counts he faces in the shootings, which claimed the lives of worshippers from three congregations who were sharing the building, Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life.
David Klug
In this courtroom sketch, Robert Bowers, the suspect in the 2018 synagogue massacre, is on trial in federal court on Tuesday, May 30, 2023, in Pittsburgh. Bowers could face the death penalty if convicted of some of the 63 counts he faces in the shootings, which claimed the lives of worshippers from three congregations who were sharing the building, Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life.

Defense lawyers in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial on Thursday continued to present testimony about defendant Robert Bowers’ history of trauma and mental illness — arguing that those mitigating factors should persuade the jury not to sentence Bowers to death.

Since his childhood, Bowers’ mother was continuously told that her son needed help, but she did not seek the treatment he needed, said defense witness Katherine Porterfield, a clinical psychologist. Porterfield was the first witness called by the defense during the penalty phase of the trial, in which a federal jury will decide whether to sentence Bowers to death or life in prison.

That jury convicted Bowers of killing 11 Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018. Last week, those jurors determined he is eligible for the death penalty.

Earlier this week, jurors also heard testimony from survivors and victims’ family members, who spoke about the impact the shooting has had on their lives.

Porterfield told the jury Bowers suffered “chronic trauma” as a child and experienced 7 of 10 possible “adverse childhood experiences,” including emotional abuse, physical and emotional neglect, mental illness, domestic violence, substance abuse and divorce and parental death. Adverse childhood experiences can be linked to physical and mental illness, substance misuse and more in adulthood, she said.

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The “dose” of the adverse experience matters, Porterfield said, explaining that more instances early in life typically correlate with a higher likelihood of poor outcomes in adulthood.

“Repetitive traumatic stress at a severe level over the course of a child’s life will change the child’s stress-response system,” she said. People can develop brain abnormalities linked to physical diseases, mental illness, and violence as a result of traumatic stress.

Porterfield also presented a collection of Bowers’ school and hospital records that reflected evidence of a troubled childhood and instability in his home life.

Bowers’ mother, Barbara Bolt, declined follow-up care for her son after he had a series of medical issues as a child. At 20 months old, Bowers experienced speech regression and stopped talking. He was referred for additional care at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, but Bolt did not follow up with that treatment and instead moved with her son to Florida. Bolt also did not take Bowers to follow-up appointments for various other health issues.

A first-grade teacher became concerned about Bowers and referred him to the school psychologist. According to a report from a child youth services agency, Bolt became angry when she found out about the referral and put an end to it. The next year, she enrolled Bowers at a new school.

“There’s a real pattern of Robert’s mother having a really difficult time of hearing she needs to do something,” Porterfield told the jury.

In 1979, when Bowers was seven years old, his father, Randall Bowers, was arrested on rape charges. When the elder Bowers died by suicide later that year, Bolt told her son: “Your father killed himself. He shot himself,” Porterfield said.

She described that statement as a far more blunt approach than is typically recommended when telling a child about a death. In later records from hospitals and social workers, Bold said she didn’t think Randall Bowers’ death had an impact on her son.

During his parents’ brief marriage, Bowers’ father abused his mother and made violent threats, and both of his parents threatened to kill him when he was an infant, Porterfield said.

Bolt’s second husband, Robert Saiter, was also mentally ill and violent, and was later convicted of child sexual abuse, she said.

Bowers’ standardized test scores throughout his time at school showed he was intelligent, Porterfield said, noting that he scored in the 98th or 99th percentile in most subjects. But his academic performance in school was average, he missed school for weeks and teachers worried about him, she said.

“I am concerned with his well-being emotionally along the lines we have talked about,” one teacher wrote on his fourth-grade report card.

In fall 1981, Barbara met her third husband, Ray Bolt, on a call-in dating show. Shortly after, he moved into the one-room apartment Bowers shared with his mother. Bowers began sleeping on a pallet bed on the floor in the apartment’s kitchen area.

From age 10 through 18, Bowers “suffered severe instability and mental illness that reached crisis points on many occasions,” Porterfield told the jury. In 1982, at age 10, Bowers had his first documented suicide attempt, which Porterfield described as the “beginning of a chronic descent into suicidality throughout his adolescence.” Bowers would attempt suicide four more times before he turned 18.

During various hospitalizations during his adolescence, Bowers was “withdrawn, angry and fearful of his surroundings. He did not comprehend any need to be here but did admit to severe stresses in the home and did not want to be around his mother,” a doctor wrote at the time. Reports say Bowers exhibited poor emotional regulation during his hospitalizations and at times became violent, threatening to injure staff and himself.

While in one psychiatric ward, Bowers, then 13 years old, was given a tranquilizer and antipsychotic medication and held in four-point restraints. Bowers spent 18 hours with leather cuffs on his wrists hooked to a metal frame. He spent another six hours in three-point restraints. Doctors’ notes say Bowers cried while in the restraints, asking to be removed from them. Such restraints are no longer used on patients.

Courts twice determined that Bowers’ hospitalizations should be extended. Both times, Bolt was “angry and screaming, threatening and using obscenities against staff, stating we are trying to keep her son away from her,” according to reports from the time.

A social worker at Southwood Psychiatric Hospital wrote that Bowers’ mother “oftentimes will minimize the significance or the dangerousness of Robert’s behaviors.” Her inability to care for him and her tendency to minimize problems and resist treatment could be a “potent combination,” Porterfield said.

Bowers’ symptoms improved somewhat with treatment and medication, but doctors warned that sustained treatment would be necessary to see long-term changes.

As an adult, Bowers worked at Potomac Bakery in the South Hills for 14 years but had difficulty holding down other part-time jobs. He was eventually fired and evicted from his apartment above the bakery after he stole $1,300 to pay for opioids, to which he became addicted after the drugs were prescribed for his back and shoulder pain, Porterfield said.

Bowers again became suicidal and called the police. He spent three days in St. Clair Hospital, where doctors recommended follow-up treatment, but he did not follow through.

For the next 10 years, he lived in his grandfather’s unfinished basement, where he slept on a recliner and, according to family, was “barely able to function,” Porterfield said. After his grandfather died, the family sold the house. Bowers lived in his aunt’s basement for a time.

Bowers later went to school to get a commercial driver’s license and became a truck driver. Later, he said he had been living in his truck.

He had “multiple, severe and chronic traumatic life events and circumstances that put him at risk for the development of serious mental illness and problems,” Porterfield said. “He showed signs of that early… and time and again he did not get the care and intervention he needed, so we saw that mental health deteriorate over the course of his life.”

Bowers experienced an “extraordinary amount of adversity and caregiver neglect,” Porterfield said, noting that caregivers — including his mother — showed an “inability to protect this boy.”

His family loved him, she said, but they were not able to give him the support he needed.

During cross-examination, prosecutors noted that Bolt told Porterfield she wasn’t certain that Randall was Bowers’ father, which could call into question the influence of his family’s psychiatric history. Porterfield said there’s no indication that Randall ever denied paternity. He is listed on Bowers’ birth certificate, and his family treated Bowers as their own. Bolt spoke “at length” about Randall as Bowers’ father, Porterfield said, leading her to believe that Randall is Bowers’ father.

Prosecutors also questioned Bolt’s reliability as a source of information about Bowers’ early life, noting that she suffered from mental illness herself.

Defense lawyers also called Deanna Bowers, Bowers’ aunt by marriage to the stand. She was married to Wendall Bowers, Randall Bowers’ brother.

Wendall died in 2019, but during their 41-year marriage he told Deanna that his father, Norman Bowers, was abusive to his wife and children, she said. Wendall also shared information about his parents’ divorce, his mother’s subsequent move to California and difficult relationships with his five other siblings, including Randall, Deanna Bowers testified.

She also testified that Randall and Wendall often fought as children and that Randall was “very mean to Wendall, very conniving and scheming.”

Deanna and Wendall met Robert Bowers only once, when he went to California to visit his grandmother at around age 8. Deanna said his grandmother cared about Bowers very much.

Testimony will resume Monday in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh.

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