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Witnesses describe Pittsburgh synagogue shooter’s long family history of mental illness, abuse

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 went deep into the family history of defendant Robert Bowers on Monday. They say Bowers’ extended family has a long history of mental illness, abuse and substance use issues that contributed to Bowers’ own issues.

The defense argued that this history and Bowers’ mental health problems are some of the mitigating factors that should persuade the jury not to sentence Bowers to death.

The same jury that convicted Bowers of killing 11 Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018 also found him eligible for the death penalty on July 13. In the sentencing phase of the trial, they must decide now whether to sentence Bowers to death or life in prison.

A family history of trauma and abuse

The family history of mistreatment began with at least Bowers’ maternal great-grandparents, said Naomi Grimm, a first cousin of Bowers’ mother, Barbara Bolt. Grimm said she has never met Bowers and didn’t even know he existed until the attack occurred.

Grimm has spent years assembling a family tree starting with her grandparents, Robert and Amy Dennis. They had nine children, including Patricia Jenkins, Bowers’ grandmother, and raised their family in Ohio.

Almost 100 years ago, in the midst of the great depression, Robert, a bricklayer, was unable to find work and the family didn’t have any money. Robert and Amy loved their children, Grimm said, but were unable to take care of them. They sent them to the McCullough Children’s Home, where the children experienced severe physical and sexual abuse. Robert was later committed to a state psychiatric institution, where he eventually died.

Grimm’s mother, Martha, was one of Robert and Amy’s children. After Martha told the cook at the children’s home that the superintendent who ran the facility was molesting her, the superintendent kicked her out in the middle of a snowstorm on Christmas Eve, just before she turned 18. Her family didn’t celebrate Christmas growing up, Grimm said.

Grimm and her sister were raised the same way Martha was raised in the children’s home, she said. If they disobeyed or did their chores improperly, Martha hit them with a wooden spoon or a fly swatter.

One of Grimm’s uncles was a “heavy drinker” and sexually abused people, including children in his own family, Grimm said.

One of her aunts had “severe mental issues,” and spent her life in and out of state hospitals. She married a man with alcohol issues and went on to have a daughter who had her own mental problems. The daughter experienced seizures and was “unwanted by her parents,” according to hospital records shared with the jury. A caregiver at the hospital wrote that parental neglect was “undoubtedly” present in her early life.

Two of Grimm’s cousins, one of whom was never verbal, were both sent to a school for “mentally challenged children,” she said.

Another aunt and her husband worked at a traveling circus for six years. For a time, they lived with their five children in a chicken coop. When the aunt left home, she would mark the number of bread slices left and how much milk was left in the jug, so her children didn’t eat while she was gone, Grimm testified. The aunt was “very strict and very abusive with them,” she said. After the aunt’s husband died, she sent the rest of her children to foster care.

One of the cousins was sent to live with a foster father, who was a police officer, in his house above a jail. When the two got into a disagreement, the cousin burned down their house and the jail.

Patricia, Robert and Amy’s youngest child and Bowers’ grandmother, spent at least 10 years in the children’s home. She eventually developed a “heavy, heavy drinking problem,” Grimm said. Patricia’s daughter, Barbara, said her parents were abusive, though one of her sisters denied that.

The whole family “seemed to be very similar in the way that they raised us because of their treatment in the children’s home,” Grimm said. “We’ve kind of been a reflection of that abuse.”

Upon cross-examination, Grimm spoke of her efforts to raise her four daughters in a healthy, loving home, despite her family’s history.

“I’m not going to be my mom,” she told jurors.

‘I was a terrible mom’

Barbara went on to have a son, Robert Bowers, whom she struggled to care for, clinical psychologist Katherine Porterfield testified earlier in the day.

“I was a terrible mom. I did a lot of horrible things,” Porterfield said Barbara told her in an interview. Porterfield was hired by the defense to assemble a psychosocial history of Bowers’ life and family. As part of that effort, she reviewed about 21,000 pages of documents from Bowers and his relatives’ lives. She also interviewed 17 witnesses, including some of Bowers’ family members.

Barbara said she cut herself in front of Bowers when he was young.

“At least you’ll know why you’re messed up,” Porterfield testified Barbara told him. “It was almost comforting to feel pain.”

Barbara also told Porterfield she had been “sexually inappropriate” in front of Bowers when he was young and admitted to having inappropriate sexual boundaries. When he was 18 months old, Barbara said she taught her son to “pleasure himself.” When Bowers was six, Barbara took Bowers and another child to see “Saturday Night Fever,” a movie that includes sexually explicit content, violence, suicide and rape.

Porterfield testified that the combination of the environment one grew up in, his hereditary risk for mental illness, and other issues can have strong effects on a child.

“When I was growing up my parents made me feel so bad to my core, so awful,” Barbara told Porterfield. “I remember thinking ‘I won't’ do that to my child,’ but then I didn’t know how to not do it.”

Porterfield said Barbara seemed “profoundly ashamed,” embarrassed and humiliated when relaying the information.

Prosecutors continued to question Bowers’ paternity, but Porterfield said based on the information she reviewed, she believes Randall Bowers is Robert Bowers’ father.

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Digging into Bowers’ elementary school experience

The defense also called a former classmate and a former teacher of Bowers at Faith Community Christian School.

Jace Wingard said he went to school with Bowers from second to fifth grade, from about 1979 to 1983. He remembered Bowers as “fairly quiet” and somewhat of a loner, but ultimately normal.

Wingard recalled a time when Bowers asked to play with a Star Wars fighter toy and then immediately smashed it on the ground. Wingard was upset at the time but said it was normal childhood behavior. Another time, Bowers ate dust from the chalkboard. Wingard said he thought Bowers was just looking for attention.

Wingard did remember that his mother once drove Bowers home from a birthday party. After dropping Bowers off at home, she told Wingard that she was worried about Bowers and his family, but he didn’t remember her sharing a reason why.

Dennis Kavanaugh was Bowers’ fifth grade teacher. Kavanaugh said Bowers was an average student. In one instance Bowers had a “visible anxious moment” during a timed math exercise. Bowers shook and shouted, and Kavanaugh said he had to stop the class to calm him down. Another time, when given a writing assignment, Bowers told Kavanaugh that he “can’t touch that kind of paper. I had to go to the hospital once because of that kind of paper.” Kavanaugh did not have an explanation for the incident.

Kavanaugh also recalled the school principal telling him Bowers had tried to hurt himself, but when he reached out to Bowers he was rebuffed.

Wingard and Kavanaugh both testified that they have not seen or spoken to Bowers since he was in the fifth grade.

Mental health testimony continues

Two psychiatrists who treated Bowers at McKeesport Hospital and Southwood Psychiatric Hospital also took the stand for the defense Monday. Neither remembered treating Bowers but walked the jury through the treatments he received after being admitted for a suicide attempt at age 13. Bowers was ultimately treated for atypical depression, adjustment disorder with disturbance of conduct and parent/child problems. Both doctors said Bowers seemed to improve somewhat when prescribed antidepressant medications.

The defense also called an investigator from the federal public defender’s office. Ashley Hatcher-Peralta testified that she collected documents from Bowers’ apartment after the FBI turned it back over to the landlord in November 2018.

She found an envelope that said “My Last Words, by Randall G. Bowers.” Inside the envelope were a series of Randall’s documents. A suicide note was also found, but not inside the envelope. Randall’s mother — Bowers’ paternal grandmother — sent Bowers the documents in September 2003.

Randall died by suicide in 1979 after being accused of rape.

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