After SWAT officer Anthony Burke was shot in his right hand — his dominant hand — by the man who attacked three congregations in the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27, 2018, he asked another officer to place a pistol in his left hand so he could get back to work.
Burke testified that when he arrived at the Tree of Life building that morning, he joined an emergency team already forming outside, then entered the building to help protect first responders while they cleared the main sanctuary. The officers then headed to “the second chapel” where they saw a man who had been gunned down and heard a woman “screaming erratically.”
Burke was the ninth and final witness Thursday. His testimony followed that of FBI experts regarding data extracted from the defendant’s cell phone, DNA evidence from the crime scene, and items discovered in the defendant’s apartment. Other witnesses included New Light Congregation’s Co-President Stephen Cohen and Tree of Life Congregation’s President Alan Hausman.
Burke described heading up the stairway in the Tree of Life building and hearing gunfire erupt — “rapid, multiple shots” coming from a “pitch-black” classroom — and his colleague and mentor Officer Timothy Matson “screaming in pain.” Matson had been shot in his legs.
Matson, Burke said, was trying to crawl out of the third-floor room, head-first. Burke grabbed a strap on Matson’s vest to help drag him out of the room.
“I could see muzzle flashes,” Burke said, “and drywall fragments falling from the ceiling.”
That’s when Burke’s hand was struck by gunfire.
After he got Matson out of the room, Burke pushed him down a set of five stairs to safety, then tried to grab his rifle, but he couldn’t.
“My hand wasn’t working,” Burke said. “There was a large wound on the top and bottom of my hand.”
He let other officers know he was shot and they applied a tourniquet to help stop the bleeding.
A second round of gunfire began. Burke could hear officers communicating with the defendant, who “said he was hurt and he wanted to give up,” Burke recounted. “He said he wanted us to come in and get him.”
Burke said he heard the defendant say that “he couldn’t stand by and watch Jews do this to this country and all Jews had to die.” Eventually, the officers convinced the shooter to crawl out of the room.
Burke had four surgeries to repair the damage to his hand, he said, and he couldn’t return to work until December 2019. After his second surgery, a test showed that a nerve in his wrist was not carrying signals to his muscles, so it was replaced with a nerve from a cadaver. When that didn’t work, he had a tendon removed from his leg and placed in his hand. While he can still perform his job duties, he’s been left with sensory issues in two fingers, can’t open his hand completely and has trouble with his fine motor skills, he said.
Earlier in the day, an FBI forensic examiner headquartered in Quantico, Virginia, detailed the analysis of DNA extracted from a Colt AR-15 rifle, two Glock pistols, a canvas bag, earmuffs and safety glasses found at the Tree of Life building and in the defendant’s vehicle. The probability that the DNA found on those items belonged to the defendant, is “very strong,” she said.
In fact, FBI forensic examiner Marcy Plaza said that it was “6 septillion times more likely” that the defendant’s DNA was present on those items than that of an “unknown, unrelated individual.”
Another FBI expert from Quantico, Curtis Thomas, a digital forensic examiner for mobile phones and other electronic devices, testified about the information that was extracted from a cellphone belonging to the defendant, which was locked and encrypted. To gain access, the FBI had to figure out the password. But the phone had been programmed so that if a wrong password was guessed 15 to 30 times, all user data would be erased.
Thomas described the process and software used to override the number of times his team could try a password before the phone erased all data. Once they were successful in doing so and unlocking the phone, they found that, compared to a typical cell phone, “there was a low amount of data used.” For example, the defendant had only one contact entered, and it had been deleted. There were just nine text messages, which all had been deleted.
Cookies — small pieces of data that websites or applications store to remember information about their users — indicated that the user of the phone had been active on Gab.com on Oct. 27, 2018, from 9:47 to 9:48 a.m. Gab.com is a social media site popular among the alt-right and some extremists, and on which there is a lot of antisemitic content.
One photo extracted from the phone depicted the defendant making an “OK” hand gesture. The Anti-Defamation League has classified that gesture as a hate symbol associated with white supremacy and the far right. There were also several photos on the phone of guns and ammunition.
FBI Special Agent Cedric Jefferson, who worked out of West Virginia for the FBI’s Pittsburgh team at the time of the shooting, testified he and his team were dispatched to the defendant’s residence, a one-bedroom apartment in Baldwin, the day of the shooting. Prosecutors displayed several photos of the defendant’s apartment showing what the FBI found there that day, including a paper target hanging on the living room wall depicting the image of a person, computers, three DVDs related to weapon use — including one titled “Top Ten Concealed Carry Mistakes and How to Avoid Them” — a “substantial amount of ammunition” and several firearms, Jefferson said.
The first witness of the day was New Light Congregation’s Co-President Stephen Cohen, who testified that the congregation began leasing space from Tree of Life * Or L’Simcha in 2017 because the financial burden of maintaining its own building in Squirrel Hill had become too great. The three-year lease agreement — “with the probability of extension” — set the rent for the first year at $35,000, with provisions for it to rise each year. Cohen also testified that, after the massacre, the congregation had to find a new space in another congregation.
Tree of Life President Alan Hausman testified that his congregation suffered a financial loss of “tens of thousands of dollars” resulting from the attack, as it lost revenue from its long-term lease agreements with New Light and Congregation Dor Hadash, as well as from income from renting space to individuals and organizations for life cycle events, meetings and other programs.
Court is in recess until Monday, June 12. PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com. This story is part of ongoing coverage of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial by the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and the Pittsburgh Union Progress in a collaboration supported by funding from the Pittsburgh Media Partnership.