In this blog series, we explore historical events to teach us what pre-incident indicators were present to reduce the chance of bad things happening in the future. History tells us that there is no detail too small, as even the slightest move off-center can set off an unfortunate domino effect.
In this Case File, we share a detailed description and analysis of the events surrounding the mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue. You will learn important information, including:
- Background and Synopsis of Events
- Timeline of Pre-Incident Indicators
- Pre-Incident Indicators Present
In 2018, Robert Gregory Bowers killed eleven and wounded six people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Bowers is reported to have had a difficult upbringing, shifting from multiple parent-figures and cities. He is a high school dropout, nicknamed “ghost” for his lack of interaction with others. Despite his introverted personality, Bowers was very active in the online world, and is known for posting antisemitic conspiracy theories on Gab, a social media site associated with right-wing extremists.
In the weeks leading up to the attack, Bowers posted photos of his three handguns with the caption “Glock family”. (source: Reuters) In addition, he posted the threatening statement:
“Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” (source: Times of Israel)
Summary of Incident Events:
- On October 27, 2018 at 9:45 a.m. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a 45-year old white Caucasian male, Robert Gregory Bowers, killed eleven and wounded six people with a Colt AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and three Glock .357 semi-automatic pistols. (source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
- The attack took place at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. On Sabbath, the holy day of the week for the Jewish community, Bowers entered the synagogue and began firing on Jewish worshippers. While opening fire, Bowers yelled “All Jews must die”. (source: ADL) The incident ended with the attacker being apprehended at the scene after an exchange of gunfire with police officers.
- Bowers was known for expressing anti-Semitic, neo-Nazi, and nationalist ideas via social media.
Below you will find a detailed breakdown of the timeline leading up to this incident, a comprehensive list of pre-incident indicators, and supporting content.
Timeline of Pre-Incident Indicators:
August 1973 – Bowers’ parents get a divorce when he is about one year old.
1975 – Bowers’ mother, Barbara, gets remarried to Robert Saiter in Florida when Bowers is about three years old. The relationship lasts less than a year, but Saiter recalls Bowers being “a very good kid”. (source: The Washington Post) After Barbara and Robert split, Bowers and his mother move back to Pennsylvania. Soon after, Barbara begins to develop health problems and, as a result, Bowers’ grandparents become responsible for raising him.
October 1979 – Bower’s father, Randall G. Bowers, is charged with rape at age 27. Six months later, he commits suicide on October 15, 1979 when Robert is seven years old. A report claims that Randall’s body was found under a picnic table with antidepressant drugs nearby, along with a gunshot wound to his chest.
August 1986 to November 1989 – Bowers attends Baldwin High School in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District. Bowers is very quiet and does not interact with others. Neighbors referred to him as “a ghost”. (source: The Washington Post)
November 1989 – Bowers leaves high school in November of his senior year to pursue work delivering baked goods. His coworker, Robert Walters, says that Bowers never discussed his family, politics, or his dislike for non-whites. Although Walters recalls Bowers expressing his hatred for the government, he considered him to be “a pretty well-rounded person”. (source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Late 1990s – Robert Bowers begins listening to the American radio talk show, Jim Quinn, also known as the War Room. Bowers became fascinated with Jim Quinn’s conservative ideology and held the same hostility towards the United Nations.
1999 – Robert Bowers runs a website, onedingo.com. Under the website, it states that “This page will be used as a back-up site for the War Room audio archives. So bookmark it and then go here for shows…” Later, @onedingo became the handle for Robert Bowers controversial posts on Gab.com. (source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
2002 – After Bowers leaves his bakery job, he becomes a trucker. He cuts connections with many neighbors, friends, and former coworkers.
2014 – Bowers’ maternal grandfather that he lives with dies.
January 2018 – Bowers joins Gab.com, a social media platform known for being “extremist friendly” to Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Under his profile, a description reads “Jews are the children of Satan”. Until the day of the shooting, Bowers continues to make disturbing and concerning social media posts via Gab.
October 27, 2018 – The Day of the shooting
9:45 a.m. – Services begin at Tree of Life Congregation. Brothers, Cecil and David Rosenthal, are handing out prayer books at the entrance.
9:50 a.m. – The shooter enters the Tree of Life Synagogue and starts shooting. His first victims are the Rosenthal brothers.
9:54 a.m. – The first 911 call is placed by Rabbi Jeffery Myers.
9:55 a.m. – Several congregants hide in a storage closet. After a moment of silence, Melvin Wax opens the closet and is shot and killed.
9:57 a.m. – Bowers leaves the closet and goes upstairs to the Tree of Life where several congregants are hiding. He begins firing, killing seven and injuring one.
10:00 a.m. – Police officers arrive at the scene and exchange gunfire with Bowers. Two officers have minor injuries.
10:01 a.m. – Bowers retreats back into the building.
10:08 a.m. – Officers report that they have not heard gunfire since the first exchange.
10:12 a.m. – The SWAT team arrives at the scene. The synagogue is surrounded.
10:29 a.m. – The SWAT team moves throughout the building and begins to escort congregants out.
10:47 a.m. – The SWAT team encounters Bowers on the third floor and he fires at them. One officer is critically wounded.
11:03 a.m. – Bowers engages in conversation with officers.
11:08 a.m. – Bowers, who is injured, surrenders and crawls towards officers. While crawling, he explains how “All Jews need to die.”
11:13 a.m. – Bowers is taken into custody.
He faces 44 criminal counts, including a dozen tied to hate crimes such as attempting to obstruct religious beliefs. The most recent report states that Bowers is still in a county prison awaiting trial. He faces a maximum possible penalty of death, or life without parole, along with a sentence of 535 years’ imprisonment.
Pre-Incident Indicators by Identification Type:
Pre-incident indicators detectable by vigilant observers:
- Bowers was very quiet and did not interact with others. Neighbors referred to him as “a ghost”.
- Bowers was raised by his grandparents after his mother developed health issues.
- Bowers’ coworker, Robert Walters, explained that RB developed a fascination with political ideologies.
- After Bowers left his job at the bakery, he cut connections with family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers.
- Bowers’ father suffered from mental health issues and later killed himself.
- Bowers made at least six known firearm purchases since 1996.
- Bowers’ mother (Barbara Bolt) and father (Randall Bowers) divorced when he was one year old.
Human and Technology
Indicators that technology could have assisted with identifying:
- Bowers’ dad was charged with rape and subsequently committed suicide at age 27.
- Arrest records and obituary and related records.
- Bowers expressed his extremist views through anti-semitic commentary online.
- Bowers made numerous concerning and disturbing posts on Gab.com (i.e. An image of his “Glock Family”).
- Bowers’ maternal grandfather (his guardian at the time) died in 2014.
Appendix: Media Images / Reference Material: