‘I expected to die’: Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial opens with grief, tears

Tribune Content Agency

PITTSBURGH — Bernice Simon screamed into her cellphone: “We’re being attacked. My husband’s been shot. My husband’s been shot in the back.”

Shannon Basa-Sabol, a 911 dispatcher, tried to understand what was happening. She asked for the caller’s name and address.

“We’re on Wilkins and Shady, the Tree of Life synagogue, we’re being attacked,” Simon screamed.

The panicked call was the first made during the Oct. 27, 2018, attack on the Squirrel Hill synagogue, where three congregations worshipped. It was Saturday, the Sabbath. Services were just starting.

The harrowing audio was among the first pieces of evidence introduced Tuesday in the federal trial against Robert Bowers, the man accused of killing 11 worshippers that day. More than four years after the worst antisemitic attack in American history, and after a weekslong jury selection process, opening arguments and testimony began in the federal courthouse in Downtown Pittsburgh.

The day included opening arguments by prosecutors and defense lawyers, and tearful testimony from a rabbi who said he “expected to die.” And for the first time, an attorney for Bowers, who has pleaded not guilty to all the charges against him, effectively acknowledged he was the shooter. Testimony will resume Wednesday morning.

Simon told 911 in the call that her husband was shot in the back and was bleeding. “Oh, dear God,” she repeated. Basa-Sabol told her to stay on the ground.

The call disconnected, so Basa-Sabol called back. This time, she could hear shots in the background.

Simon asked for police to hurry. She said her husband wasn’t breathing. She was trying to put pressure on the wound, she said.

“They’re still shooting,” she said. “I’m so scared.”

Over the course of several minutes — all while Bernice Simon pleaded for help and tended to her dying husband, Sylvan Simon — the sounds of shooting got closer again.

“I hear somebody,” Basa-Sobal heard Simon say. Then screaming. And loud, booming gunshots, followed by ragged breaths that quickly dropped off. “Stay quiet,” Basa-Sabol told her. “Don’t scream. Bernice, are you still with me?”

Then, silence.

“What were you hearing?” Acting U.S. Attorney Troy Rivetti asked Basa-Sabol on Tuesday.

“I was hearing her being shot,” Basa-Sabol testified.

She read aloud from the notes she’d entered into her computer in real time.

“My caller was possibly just shot; hearing agonal breathing.”

She explained “agonal breathing” to the jury: “It’s not sufficient breathing for life.”

The trial — the start of which was slowed by a pandemic, the grinding wheels of justice and unending bickering between prosecutors and defense lawyers — began in earnest at about 9 a.m. EDT Tuesday. That’s when 18 stone-faced jurors, including six alternates, filed into the fifth-floor courtroom to receive their initial instructions.

“He starts the trial with a clean slate, with no evidence against him,” U.S. District Judge Robert Colville said, after laying out the 63 federal charges Bowers is facing. “The number of offenses is not evidence of guilt.”

Bowers, 50, sat between two of his attorneys, dressed in what has become a rotating uniform of sorts since jury selection began in late April: a grey sweater over a light-colored collared shirt and dark pants. Sometimes he dons black-rimmed glasses.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Soo C. Song described in her opening statements where each of the slain congregants was, who they were, and the role they played in their congregations. The synagogue housed three different congregations — Dor Hadash, New Light and Tree of Life.

Bernice Simon and her husband had been married in the synagogue decades earlier.

Song went victim by victim. She described Irving Younger’s shock of white hair — hair, she said, that would later be strewn across the synagogue chapel along with pieces of his skull and brain. She said 97-year-old Rose Mallinger walked into the synagogue arm in arm with her daughter, Andrea Wedner, who was wounded but survived the massacre.

Mallinger usually read the prayer for peace each Saturday, Song said. David and Cecil Rosenthal walked to the synagogue from the group home where they lived. They couldn’t read, Song said, but they knew the prayers.

Daniel Stein was also there, along with Jerry Rabinowtiz, Joyce Fienberg, Melvin Wax, and Richard Gottfried. All were shot and killed. Wedner and Daniel Leger survived.

Song also recounted how Bowers prepared that morning. She read the antisemitic screeds he posted to the far-right website Gab, in the day days leading up to and even the minutes before the shooting began. He called Jews the “children of Satan.” He called them a cancer, evil, pedophiles and thieves.

At 9:49 on the morning of the shooting, he wrote: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

He did go in, said his lead defense attorney Judy Clarke.

“The tragedy that brings us together today is almost impossible to grasp,” Clarke said in her opening remarks. “It’s incomprehensible, it’s inexcusable.”

And Bowers is responsible for that inexcusable and incomprehensible tragedy, she said: “He shot every person he saw.”

“The loss that occurred is immeasurable, this senseless act,” she added. “The loss and devastation caused by Robert Bowers. There is no disagreement, no dispute and there will be no doubt who shot and killed the 11 congregants and wounded several others. There will be no question that this was a planned attack and Robert Bowers killed 11 and wounded seven others.”

But, she said, “These are federal charges, not straightforward murder charges,” and each has certain elements that have to be proven.

She told the jurors they will have to examine Bowers’ motives and intentions — and the evidence behind them. He was at the synagogue that day, she said, to stop the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a Jewish group that helped resettle refugees. She said those refugees, in his mind, were invaders.

Bowers — born in Pittsburgh, the grandson of a steelworker, someone who Clarke described as a “quiet, socially awkward man who didn’t have many friends” — answered the officers who ultimately took him into custody when they asked why he did it.

He said he wanted to kill Jews. He said invaders were murdering children, committing genocide.

Clarke said he was at the synagogue that day to “kill Jews,” and was motivated by support, particularly from Dor Hadash, for the group HIAS. In his mind, she said, that was the group bringing in “invaders.”

The trial will happen in multiple phases. What started Tuesday was the guilt phase. If the jury finds Bowers guilty, it will decide in a second phase if he is eligible for the death penalty. If they determine he is, they will deliberate on that sentence.

‘I expected to die’

Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers spoke with an upbeat, almost playful lilt through the first half of his testimony Tuesday. He explained the importance of the yarmulke, the Torah and the prayer shawl in the Jewish faith, and he walked jurors through the main areas of the synagogue, room by room, photograph by photograph.

He spoke with warmth about the Rosenthal brothers, affectionately known as “the boys.” Cecil Rosenthal, the older of the brothers at 59, carried the Torah before services began. Congregants Joe Charney and Audrey Glickman led the opening prayer, and David Rosenthal, 54, would assist them. He knew the prayers by heart.

As services began, Myers testified, he heard what he thought could have been a coat rack falling on the lower floor. Then he saw people running and heard what he thought were gunshots. He told his congregants to get on the ground or lay flat on the pews. He knew they were older and likely wouldn’t be able to run.

Myers eventually hid in a bathroom near the second-floor choir loft, he said. He called 911. His right hand stayed on the doorknob, and his left hand clutched his cellphone for at least 40 minutes.

“I thought that if I could sense someone was turning the knob, I might have the element of surprise to pop open the door and fight,” he said.

“Is that what you were prepared to do?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric Olshan asked him.


The rabbi’s voice became halting, soft. The man who has become the living face of the massacre and a larger than life presence promising to rise above hate and rebuild his congregation — that man broke down on the stand.

The audio of the rabbi’s 911 call played, grueling minute after grueling minute. He reported each time he heard gunfire. He said he heard screaming from the chapel — a woman screaming her husband had been shot. He didn’t realize it at the time, but later recognized the voice as Bernice Simon’s.

There was a stretch of relative silence on the call after Myers believed he heard footsteps coming toward him. The recording captured him faintly speaking in the background.

He was praying.

“I expected to die,” he testified, weeping. “I was trying to decide, ‘Do I hang up the phone and call my wife or make a video?’ I thought if this was the end, I wasn’t going to leave her like that, for her to hear that. So I decided to stay on the phone with 911.”

He said he thought of the history of his people, persecuted and killed for centuries. He said he thought about how they must have felt before they were killed.

He wasn’t angry with God, he said. God didn’t do this.

“I was prepared to meet my fate,” he said.

After at least 40 minutes with his hand on the door knob and his phone in his hand, police came. Four SWAT officers encircled the rabbi to walk him out. As he walked out, he recalled Tuesday, he asked God to forgive him.

“Because I couldn’t save them,” he said.

One by one, Olshan asked if he ever saw Rose Malinger again, if he ever saw Bernice and Sylvan Simon, David and Cecil Rosenthal, Irving Younger, Joyce Fienberg.

He said no each time. Each time, his voice became more choked at his tried to suppress the tears and clear pain.

Olshan asked him what police told him as they helped him out of the synagogue.

“’Rabbi, run your ass off.’”

Body camera footage from outside the synagogue showed Myers still in his prayer shawl and yarmulke, one hand on his head.

What were you doing, Olshan asked?

“It was a little windy,” he said in a small voice. “I didn’t want my yarmulke to fly away.”

In closing the first day of testimony in what will likely be a two-month trial, Olshan showed a photo of a Jewish prayer book, its cover gnarled by an apparent gunshot. Its back cover showed an indentation where a bullet went through and hit the inside of the back cover.

Myers had carried a small brown paper package into court with him. In it was the prayer book. The rabbi turned it over in his hands. He’d rescued it that day, and he’s had it ever since.

Prayer books damaged beyond repair are supposed to be buried. He went against that tradition, he said.

“It’s a witness to the horror of that day,” he said. “This book tells a story that needs to be told.”