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Final synagogue shooting witness says shooter's grandfather served Holocaust survivors

A makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018.
Matt Rourke
A makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018.

Back in 2014, Patricia Fine and her nephew, Robert Bowers, spent a couple of weeks together cleaning up her father's house after he passed away.

Last month Bowers was convicted of killing 11 Jewish worshipers at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018. His trial began on May 30 and Fine was the last witness to testify in the final portion of the trial about whether Bowers deserves the death penalty or life in prison.

Bowers had been living with and taking care of his grandfather, Lloyd Jenkins, for a number of years before he died. Jenkins would fall out of his bed at night and need to be helped back up. A couple of times Jenkins set rags on the stove on fire when he would accidentally forget that he'd turned his tea kettle on, and Fine said Bowers would have to come put the fire out when the smoke alarm went off because Jenkins wouldn't hear.

Jenkins was one of the only people Bowers had a close relationship with, according to Fine. He helped Bowers get a job as a delivery truck driver at a bakery that he had for 14 years in his 20s and 30s, which represented the longest period of employment in Bowers’ life.

While they were cleaning up Jenkins' house, Rob found evidence of Jenkins working at Dachau concentration camp after World War II. Jenkins served in the military in World War II and, in particular, helped find Holocaust survivors after the war, Fine said. It was the proudest achievement of his life.

That's part of what made Bowers' actions so inconceivable, Fine testified. "It just makes it all that much more unbelievable that his mind was that broken that he was thinking what he thought with where he came from," Fine said.

Fine has written nearly 100 letters to Bowers in prison and visited him a handful of times, she said. In one of the letters, she told Bowers she was glad that Jenkins wasn't alive to see what Bowers had done.

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The missing mom

Prosecutors asked Fine about Bowers' mother, Barbara Bolt, and why she didn't testify on her son's behalf.

Bolt was at the center of the defense’s argument that Bowers suffered a traumatic childhood that exacerbated or even caused his own mental health challenges. A number of witnesses testified to the challenges Bolt said she had raising Bowers, including several violent and traumatic moments. For example, Fine said she ran to the hospital to see Bowers after he set himself on fire as a teenager.

Even decades later, as Bowers and Fine were cleaning Jenkins' house in 2014, Bowers got extremely heated and animated when talking about his mother, Fine said. Bolt had refused to fill out a tax form after Bowers received his GED, and, as a result, Bowers wasn’t eligible to receive loans that would allow him to pay for a local technical college like the one his best friend had attended, Fine said. Bowers never found another way to attend school, she added.

Fine testified that Bolt’s husband had open heart surgery earlier this month and that they were both struggling with health issues during the final phase of the trial. But Fine said she believed that Bolt loved Bowers.

Fine said that she hadn’t brought up what Bowers did and that, over the years, she hadn’t confronted Bolt because she wouldn’t talk about her or her son's mental health challenges. Fine read a portion of a letter she had written to Bowers in prison in 2020 apologizing to him.

"I hope you know deep down inside how much you are loved. I am so sorry the adults in your life were not there for you in the way that you needed," she said. "Rob, you are a kind hearted, loving, super smart and funny — in a dry humored sort of way — sweet person. I wish I would've listened more, understood more, loved more or at least let you know that you are loved more."

In the most emotional moment of her testimony, Fine tried to apologize to the victims of the shooting.

"I am so sorry to the entire victim community. I cannot begin to imagine the grief and the pain. If I had known how ill he was, I would've stopped it," she said.

Prosecutors cut off her apology with an objection to her appeal to the victims, and Judge Robert Colville sustained the objection.

Both the defense and prosecution rested after Fine’s testimony ended.

Closing statements are expected this afternoon, after which the jury will begin to deliberate on whether Bowers deserves the death penalty or life in prison.

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.