PITTSBURGH — The suspected gunman who authorities say fatally shot 11 worshippers inside the Tree of Life synagogue appeared for the first time in federal court Monday and was ordered held without bond on charges that could result in the death penalty.
Scott Brady, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania, is seeking Department of Justice permission to pursue the death penalty against Robert Bowers, 46, said Brady's spokeswoman Margaret Philbin. During the brief court appearance in which he waived a detention hearing, Bowers, who was shot multiple times in a gunfight with police, was in a wheelchair and wore handcuffs and shackles.
During the shooting spree in the synagogue and his gunfight with police, "Bowers made statements evincing an animus towards people of the Jewish faith," according to a criminal complaint filed in connection with the charges.
Meanwhile, the White House announced that President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump will visit Pittsburgh on Tuesday to “express the support of the American people” to a community still reeling from the shooting massacre.
“Our hearts ache for every person who lost a loved one,” said White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “The 11 Jewish-Americans who were horribly murdered represented the very best of our nation.”
Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, who helped hide synagogue members from the gunman's bullets, said in a brief interview Monday at the door of his home that he would be willing to meet with Trump.
"I'm respectful of any president that comes, as a religious leader, and welcome the opportunity to share my point of view," said Myers, who spent 19 years as a rabbi on Long Island before moving to head the Pittsburgh synagogue.
Trump's planned visit drew mixed reactions Monday from Pittsburgh-area residents who continued to stop by a growing memorial outside the synagogue — white wooden Jewish stars with brightly colored hearts bearing each victim's name.
The president's planned trip has become another flashpoint in the wake of the country's worst anti-Semitic attack as people of all faiths flocked to services and vigils honoring those killed, and the six injured. Saturday's mass shooting shook the country and prompted yet more national debate over whether Trump's sometimes divisive rhetoric has contributed to a climate that encourages such hate crimes.
Pittsburgh resident David Knoll, who grew up in West Hempstead, said while he's "not a fan" of Trump, he would defer to Myers on whether his presence will be helpful.
"He has Jewish grandkids," said Koll, 40, who works in real estate, referring to the children of Trump's daughter, Ivanka, and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who are Jewish. "But do I think what he's doing is affecting the rest of the country? Absolutely."
The Pittsburgh affiliate of the Jewish advocacy group Bend the Arc had issued a sharply worded open letter to Trump, saying the president was not welcome in the city.
"For the past three years your words and your policies have emboldened a growing white nationalist movement," the letter read. "You yourself called the murderer evil, but [Saturday's] violence is the direct culmination of your influence."
Matt Guercio, a Squirrel Hill resident who works for the Catholic Diocese in Pittsburgh, said he thought people "need to welcome him with open arms. We need him here. That's what this neighborhood needs. ... We need his support."
Reesa Rosenthal rolled her eyes when asked about Trump coming.
"I think his presidency has caused a lot of this, a lot more of the hatred to come out," said Rosenthal, 62, a nanny from Swissvale, Pennsylvania.
Tuesday also will mark the first services for the slain, brothers Cecil Rosenthal, 59, and David Rosenthal, 54, both of Pittsburgh. Myers said he will preside over funeral for the brothers.
Also killed in Saturday's attack were Pittsburgh residents Joyce Fienberg, 75; Rose Mallinger, 97; Daniel Stein, 71; Melvin Wax, 88; Irving Younger, 69; and Richard Gottfriend, 65, of Ross Township; Jerry Rabinowitz, 66, of Edgewood Borough; married couple Bernice Simon, 84 and Sylvan Simon, 86, of Wilkinsburgh.
During his court appearance, Bowers, of Baldwin, Pennsylvania, answered "yes" when U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert C. Mitchell asked him, "Are you Mr. Bowers?" Bowers also answered affirmatively when asked if he had received a copy of the complaint against him, had filled out an affidavit requesting representation by a public defender and whether the form was accurate.
Bowers, who according to authorities had been hospitalized since the shooting, is in the custody of the U.S. Marshal’s Office and will appear in federal court at 10 a.m. Thursday for a preliminary evidentiary hearing.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Soo C. Song and Troy Rivetti submitted a detention letter in support of keeping Bowers in custody, saying he is a danger to the community and is a flight risk.
Michael Novara and Elisa Long of the federal public defenders office declined to comment after the hearing.
Bowers is charged with 11 counts of obstruction of exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death, 11 counts of use of a firearm to commit murder during and in relation to a crime of violence, four counts of obstruction of exercise of religious beliefs resulting in bodily injury to a public safety officer, and three counts of use and discharge of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.
"They're committing genocide to my people. I just want to kill Jews," Bowers allegedly told one law enforcement officer, according to the complaint.
Bowers entered the synagogue at about 9:50 a.m. Saturday while "multiple people were in attendance ... and engaged in religious services and worship," the complaint said.
The document alleges that Bowers, armed with an AR-15 assault rifle and three Glock .357 handguns, shot and killed multiple people. Bowers "exchanged gunfire with law enforcement officers" who responded to the scene, injuring four officers, three of whom were shot, the document said.
Judah Samet, a Holocaust survivor who said he witnessed the gunfight between the suspect and the police, reflected on what he saw, in an interview outside the synagogue Monday.
Samet, 80, said when he got to the synagogue four minutes late on Saturday, someone knocked on his car window and warned him not to go inside because there was a shooting.
Samet said it took him a minute to process what he was told, and he looked out his passenger window and saw an officer shooting and smoke coming from his gun. He said he also saw the suspect, who he described as a "fairly tall" man wearing a blue top.
Samet, a member of the synagogue for 54 years, said he usually sat in the same row as the oldest victim, Mallinger, and her daughter, who is recovering from being shot.
Samet said, "I was in the line of fire, and thank God I was talking to my housekeeper so I was four minutes later."
With Candice Ferrette