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‘I did this myself’: Officers describe confrontation with Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooting defendant

<i>Jeff Swensen/Getty Images/File</i><br/>Mourners visit the memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 31
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images/File
Mourners visit the memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue on October 31

By Sabrina Souza and Ray Sanchez, CNN

(CNN) — When the rifle-toting suspect surrendered after gunning down 11 worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018, police officers tried to ascertain whether he had an accomplice, falsely telling him they had already caught “his boy.”

“I did this myself,” the shooter told the officers, claiming sole ownership of the carnage, according to Stephen Mescan, a SWAT operator and tactical commander.

“He wanted to be very clear that he was by himself and this was his doing,” Mescan recalled at the end of the first week of testimony in the trial of Robert Bowers.

Earlier Friday, another officer identified Bowers from the witness stand as the gunman he encountered that morning.

Officer Michael Smidga, testifying at the federal death penalty trial, said he briefly made eye contact with the gunman after arriving at the Tree of Life synagogue.

“I saw a rifle coming out through the doorway,” said Smidga, a police officer since 2006 and a combat veteran. First, he saw the barrel, followed by a shoulder strap.

“I waited for the person with the rifle to present himself in the doorway,” Smidga said. “I saw that man right there.”

Identifying Bowers in court, Smidga told a prosecutor: “He’s sitting there with the blue colored shirt.”

Smidga, one of more than a dozen witnesses during the first full week of testimony, was the first to identify the defendant in the courtroom.

The trial has featured emotional testimony from congregants who survived, as well as officers who responded to the attack.

Smidga painted a chaotic scene that morning, when another officer who responded with him – Dan Mead – was wounded. Mead’s body jolted suddenly, Smidga testified. “He sort of jumped backwards a little bit.”

Smidga sought cover and thought he had been hit. He felt a warm sensation on his neck. “I started making sure I wasn’t bleeding out,” he said. It turned out he had cuts on his face and ear from shards of broken glass. Moments later, the officer and the gunman made eye contact. Smidga said he fired three times.

Bowers, 50, has pleaded not guilty to 63 charges, including obstruction of free exercise of religious beliefs resulting in death and hate crimes resulting in death.

Officers step over bodies to carry wounded colleague to safety

Mescan described two thunderous gunbattles with the shooter, who eventually crawled several feet to surrender to SWAT operators and ask for medical aid.

The gunfire erupted on an upper floor of the synagogue, where SWAT operators had confronted the shooter. Mescan described a chaotic scene in unfamiliar territory, a labyrinth of doorways, stairwells and dead ends.

Mescan testified he and other officers carried a badly wounded SWAT operator, screaming in pain, downstairs and into the hands of paramedics. He recalled having to step over bodies on the way down before returning to the gunfight upstairs.

As Mescan testified, Bowers listened attentively and took notes at the defense table.

The gunman told an officer he was wounded. Mescan testified he worried Bowers was trying to lure officers into a trap. He described the suspect as “angry,” and “very direct.”

At one point, Mescan testified, Bowers started to crawl toward one officer, his hands visible. The shooter told officers he had a rifle and a handgun.

Clint Thimons, another SWAT operator, testified that he first told Bowers he needed to “show himself to us so I knew the threat was over.”

On audio from the scene, played in court, Thimons is heard telling Bowers, “Crawl out or you will die.”

Thimons testified that when asked why he carried out the rampage, Bowers responded that “he had had enough.” The officer said Bowers, in a matter-of-fact, conversational tone, claimed Jews were killing children and “all Jews had to die.”

Prosecutors release videos and images from crime scene

Throughout the first week of trial testimony prosecutors have released video of survivors in police vehicles and images from the scene, including a Jewish prayer book damaged with a bullet hole, shattered glass on the ground outside the synagogue, and a kippah and prayer shawl on a carpeted floor inside.

Prosecutors said Bowers carried out the October 27, 2018, attack because of his hatred for Jewish people and their perceived support of a non-profit that supports refugees. His defense has stated he was responsible for the shooting but in opening statements sought to raise questions about his motive and intent.

If Bowers is convicted, the trial will move to the punishment phase, during which the jury will have to decide whether to sentence him to death.

Bowers allegedly stormed into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood on a morning the synagogue was hosting three congregations – Tree of Life, Dor Hadash and New Light – for weekly Shabbat services.

Armed with three handguns and an AR-15 rifle, he shot out a large window near the entrance to the synagogue and then opened fire on congregants, according to the indictment. He was shot multiple times by police and ultimately surrendered and was taken into custody. Authorities have said they believe he acted alone.

The mass shooting left 11 people dead and six wounded, including four police officers who responded. Among the dead were a 97-year-old great-grandmother and a couple who were married at the synagogue more than 60 years earlier.

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