‘I knew it was serious’: SWAT officers describe the scene of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

Tribune Content Agency

PITTSBURGH — At the top of a maze of stairwells and hallways, Pittsburgh SWAT Officer Tim Matson stood on the hinge side of a classroom doorway. Fellow SWAT Officer Michael Saldutte stood on the other side. He tested the knob to see if it was unlocked.

“You good?” he asked Matson.

He nodded.

Matson stepped into the center of the doorway, Saldutte testified Monday. He looked toward and shifted toward his left. Then, Saldutte said, he disappeared.

He said he looked down and saw Matson on the ground in front of him, holes appearing in his pants. He realized he was being shot.

“As soon as I saw those bullets striking his hips, I dove into front of him,” he said.

The second week of testimony in the case against accused Pittsburgh synagogue shooter Robert Bowers began Monday, picking up with more law enforcement witnesses. Friday’s testimony ended with some of the first police and SWAT officers on the scene.

Saldutte had been off the morning of Oct. 27, 2018. He was at home with his wife, daughter, and 2-week-old son.

“As soon as I looked at my phone, I knew it was serious.”

He said he drove his new truck, one he’d just bought the night prior, 104 mph down the interstate to get to the synagogue at the corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues.

By the time he reached that threshold with Matson, he’d been through every level of the Squirrel Hill synagogue. Three congregations worshipped there: Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light. Saldutte called out the number of bodies as he went — 11 in all.

Bowers faces 63 federal charges related to the deaths of Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfriend, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil and David Rosenthal, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger.

When Saldutte realized Matson was being shot, he dove in front of him. It’s a trained tactic, he said. The idea was to get his body armor between the downed officer and the bullets. It was dark, and he couldn’t see, but he fired toward the muzzle flashes of the shooter’s gun.

Until he ran out of ammunition.

Lying on his side in front of the wounded Matson, Saldutte couldn’t reach a new magazine to reload.

“It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” he told jurors.

He sat up and realized another officer was in the room. He turned and crawled out.

Down another set of stairs, SWAT officers and paramedics had set up what they called the casualty collection point — that is, the area where they would triage the wounded. Most knew each other, and they readied themselves one floor down when they heard an officer was hit.

“Oh, dear God, it’s Tim,” SWAT medic Eric Barazotto recalled thinking as officers began maneuvering the man down the stairs

Fellow SWAT medic Justin Sypolt expressed a similar sentiment.

“My original reaction was, ‘Oh (expletive), it’s Tim,’” he said.

Matson, who his coworkers estimated was around 6-foot-5 and more than 300 pounds at the time, was the largest officer in the unit, they said.

“The biggest dude on the team,” Sypolt called him. “We built our evacuation plan around him.”

The narrow hallways and stairwells made it difficult for officers to maneuver the wounded man. They eventually brought him to the staging area for the wounded.

“‘Bro, I can’t move,’” Sypolt recalled Matson saying to him.

“It’s cool, man, we got you,” he replied.

He said he knew they needed to move quickly — Matson, who was on blood thinners, was already losing consciousness. Seven officers helped carry him out of the synagogue.

They’d only just evacuated one injured officer when more gunfire erupted upstairs. SWAT Officer Anthony Burke came to medics with a gunshot wound in his right arm. He was still gripping his pistol in his left hand.

Burke, though injured, bleeding and in need of a tourniquet, wanted back in. Barazotto said his injury was far too serious to even think about returning to service.

“He still very much wanted to go get the actor,” Sypolt said. He recalled the wounded officer telling the rest of the team to “go get that (expletive) guy.”

Eventually, they did.

Saldutte, who was still on the upper level dealing with the shooter, said Bowers eventually called out that he’d been shot. He asked for help. Officers told him to crawl out or die. He crawled out, and he surrendered.

He told officers his name, “Robert Bowers,” and other identifying information.

During his surrender, Saldutte said he heard the gunman make a series of alarming statements.

“I’ll never forget, ‘The Jews are killing our women and children, and I had to do this,’” he said.

Saldutte observed that Bowers had a pistol on his right hip and another pistol on his ankle. He was wearing jeans and a dark-colored jacket.

Though because Bowers was wearing “bulky clothing,” including a “heavier” jacket, Saldutte was worried he might be wearing a suicide vest or some kind of explosive underneath this clothing. Saldutte said no other weapons were found on him.

Much of Monday’s testimony focused on where victims were in the building and how officers and paramedics found them. Prosecutors took the SWAT paramedics and police beat by beat through the synagogue, asking them to describe each victim and their injuries.

Time and again, their conclusion on the scene that day.

“Incompatible with life.”

“Obviously deceased.”

“Catastrophic head wound.”

Earlier in the day, defense lawyer Ashwin Cattamanchi asked the court to limit the government to one photograph for each deceased victim and to group the photos by location. Outside of one exhibit comprising four photos, he asked defense to limit any additional displays of photos to the jury, saying they don’t have “evidentiary value” and they are an “improper” appeal to the jury’s emotions.

Cattamanchi said the photos, some of which he described as “duplicates” of the same victims, will “needlessly” confuse the jury and create “unfair prejudice,” thus violating Bowers’ constitutional rights.

U.S. District Judge Robert Colville was quick to say that the photos show additional angles of the scene and when he looked at them, he found that they helped create a “layout” of what occurred that day.

The prosecutor, Soo C. Song, argued the images will corroborate witness testimony. That will include medical examiners who will testify on specific injuries they saw, including the “positioning of different bodies” and “their relationship to each other,” which can establish a timeline, she said.

“These images show the identity of the victims and the final resting place before they were killed,” she said.

She also argued that the prosecution must establish “malice” and “force,” and that the defendant used a firearm to kill his victims. The images selected show “bodily injury,” she said.

She said, “this is not a neat and sanitary crime scene,” and they “conservatively” selected the photos.

“There are 11 victims in this case, that’s why there are so many images,” she said.

She added that the defense’s appeal was filed the previous night at 10:30 p.m.

“The defense has had these images for years,” she said. “This court reviewed every image and ruled they were admissible.”

Cattamanchi said this issue was brought up so as to not “interrupt testimony.”

“Our position is that the government has the burden to establish the relevance of each image,” he said.

The judge reaffirmed his position and overruled the defense’s objection.

“I wouldn’t subject the court to unnecessarily graphic images,” he said. “But they are relevant.”