Feds move to seal discovery materials in synagogue shooting case, details emerge about suspect’s past
Federal prosecutors Friday asked a judge to seal all discovery materials in the government’s case against alleged Tree of Life synagogue gunman Robert Bowers, court filings show.
The motions, filed by U.S. Attorney Scott Brady’s office in Pittsburgh, argue that only the defense should have access to the prosecution’s discovery materials. Discovery is the disclosure of information and evidence by prosecutors to defense counsel.
Bowers, 46, faces a 44-count federal indictment for allegedly killing 11 people inside the Tree of Life synagogue during services Oct. 27. More than half of the charges against him carry a possible death sentence.
Bowers was arraigned on the charges Thursday. He pleaded not guilty and has requested a jury trial.
Sealing discovery materials would keep them out of the public sphere as the case moves forward.
Citing “significant concerns,” prosecutors Troy Rivetti and Soo C. Song wrote in the filing that releasing such information could lead to “unwanted contact with, and harassment of, victims and/or their surviving family members.”
A separate motion filed this week by Brady’s office seeks to seal a yet-to-be-filed motion because “pertains to sensitive and confidential information pertaining to the charge at issue.”
Details emerge about suspect’s father’s suicide
Also on Friday, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office released a redacted version of a 1979 rape case in which the synagogue shooting suspect’s father, Randall George Bowers of Pittsburgh’s Garfield Heights neighborhood, was accused of attacking and sexually assaulting a 20-year-old Squirrel Hill woman.
In April 1979, Randall Bowers, then 26, allegedly followed the victim from an Oakland pizza shop to her car, and then as she began to pull away forced open the door and crawled inside her car, newspaper records show. Police told reporters at the the time that the woman, fearing for her life, said she would drive Randall Bowers to Squirrel Hill. She parked near her sister’s house and began to walk home when Randall Bowers grabbed her, covered her mouth, threatened to kill her, forced her to take off her clothes, performed a sexual act and tried to rape her.
A pair of Squirrel Hill residents came to the woman’s rescue, police told The Pittsburgh Press.
“Two neighbors, apparently attracted by the commotion, came out of their homes and nabbed the suspect,” The Pittsburgh Press wrote on April 27, 1979.
Police charged Randall Bowers with rape, attempted rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, indecent assault, and lesser charges, the 39-page case report shows.
On Oct. 21, 1979, two days before his rape trial was scheduled to begin, officials found Randall Bowers’ body under a picnic table near the Tionesta Dam in Forest County, newspapers reported at the time.
Forest County Coroner Norman J. Wimer told the Tribune-Review on Friday that a brief file documenting the incident shows officials found Randall Bowers with a .22-caliber rifle by his side and a gunshot wound to his chest. The coroner in 1979 ruled his death a suicide.
“He had been dead, the coroner said at the time, by a period of four to seven days,” Wimer said.
A death certificate issued by the state Health Department describes Randall Bowers’ death as suicide by a discharged rifle to his chest on Oct. 15, 1979.
Synagogue shooting suspect Robert Bowers, now 46, would have been 7 years old when his father took his life. His parents already had been separated for years.
In summer 1973, less than a year after Robert Bowers was born, the court approved the petition of Barbara Jenkins, the mother of Robert Bowers, to divorce Randall Bowers, Allegheny County records show. The court granted the divorce on the basis that Randall Bowers had rendered Barbara’s “condition intolerable and life burdensome,” records show.
Like some of her son’s neighbors and relatives, Bowers’ mother felt stunned and grief-stricken when her son was identified as the suspect accused of carrying out the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, her pastor, Mark Schollaert of First Baptist Church in Monongahela, said Wednesday. She declined to be interviewed.
Low-profile in person, espouser of hate online
Robert Bowers grew up in the South Hills, including Whitehall and Baldwin Borough, and attended Baldwin High School from August 1986 to November 1989. His portrait was included in the 1989 yearbook, his junior year, but not the following year. Baldwin-Whitehall School District officials would not say why he did not graduate with his class.
Bowers later spent time in Dormont and most recently had returned to Baldwin, where he lived alone in an apartment at the McAnulty Acres complex next to the Baldwin Volunteer Fire Department. Neighbors there said he told them he was a long-haul trucker and would be gone for several days at a time.
He kept to himself other than an occasional wave hello and didn’t exhibit any unusual or noticeable behavior, other than watching TV news at odd hours, such as 2 or 3 a.m.
His digital footprint was much more vocal.
In repeated online posts via the social media network Gab, Bowers shared hateful anti-Semitic writings and called Jews “the children of Satan,” archived web documents show. He accused Jews of “waging a propaganda war against Western civilization and it is so effective that we are headed towards certain extinction within the next 200 years and we’re not even aware of it.”
Robert Bowers “was clearly obsessed with Jews” and “engaged with numerous antisemitic conspiracy theories that have long been in circulation among neo-Nazis and white nationalists,” the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups and extremists, said in an analysis of social media evidence.
He also demonstrated “fixations and grievances shared across the broader far-right, including a call to arms against ‘antifa’ and a conspiratorial focus on the caravan of Central Americans fleeing violence,” the center said.
Robert Bowers has no criminal history in Pennsylvania, online court records show. His only run-ins with the law as an adult appear to be for minor traffic violations, including a 2015 ticket for operating a tractor-trailer without the proper identification markers.
He lists no party affiliation on his voter registration, which included an address for his aunt’s home.
He wrote online that he did not vote for Trump and does not support him “apparently because Trump fails to publicly acknowledge the real threat posed by Jews,” the Southern Poverty Law Center said.
“Trump is a globalist, not a nationalist,” Bowers wrote in one post. “There is no #MAGA as long as there is a (slur) infestation.”
Bowers also voiced online his vehement opposition to refugees and immigrants entering the United States. On several occasions, he attacked Maryland-based HIAS, a national nonprofit guided by Jewish values that helps refugees. In response to a HIAS list of communities nationwide having a Shabbat dedicated for refugees Oct. 19 and 20, Bowers posted that he appreciated a “list of friends.” Four such events were scheduled in the Pittsburgh area, including at Tree of Life.
About a month ago, he shared photos showing three handguns and the results of target practice.
On Saturday, minutes before authorities say Bowers stormed into the Squirrel Hill synagogue and killed 11 people, he posted one final rant: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center said his use of “optics” as a reference to debate among white nationalists of how to best market their message and gain recruits and influence.
The center likened him to other mass shooters who grow impatient with talk that doesn’t lead action, and who justify murder as self-defense, based on the perception they can only fend of the threat of so-called “white genocide” through violence.
After his arrest on Saturday, Robert Bowers told a SWAT officer he “wanted all Jews to die,” officials said.
Bowers remains in the custody of the U.S. Marshals. He is being held in the Butler County jail without bail.
Natasha Lindstrom and
Megan Guza are Tribune-Review staff writers.
You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, [email protected] or via Twitter @meganguzaTrib.