Jurors in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial spent Wednesday morning hearing about the laborious, unglamorous and repetitive nature of evidence collection. Andrea Dammann, a recently retired FBI agent, described the nine-day process — beginning Oct. 27, 2018 — of observing, photographing and documenting shell casings, weapons and personal effects located both inside and near the Tree of Life building.
Dammann, a 30-year FBI veteran, testified that she received a call at approximately 10:38 a.m. on Oct. 27, 2018, that a shooting had occurred at a Pittsburgh synagogue. She initially headed toward the FBI’s evidence response team office, located on the South Side, before being redirected to the Tree of Life building. After arriving at 11:25 a.m., she was told that Pittsburgh Police had secured the crime scene, taken the defendant into custody, cleared the building to ensure no one else was hidden and that no other dangers were on site.
Dammann — who had overseen other crime scenes and both trained and managed teams of FBI agents throughout her career — was also told that Pittsburgh police would turn over the scene for processing to the FBI and that Dammann would oversee related activities.
For the next nine days, Dammann worked alongside agents photographing and logging evidence. Some items collected, including the defendant’s weapons and ammunition, were sent to the FBI’s laboratory in Virginia for further testing. Other items were sent to the Allegheny County crime lab.
Dammann said that when she first came to the Tree of Life building on Oct. 27, she did a preliminary walk-through with Pittsburgh Police. She brought along a photographer, and the two labeled each room, designated each of the 11 deceased victims and kept notes about “major things” observed.
Those observations, as well as items recovered from the crime scene, remained the focus of Dammann’s nearly three-hour testimony.
She told jurors that she walked along the building’s exterior and observed bullet holes in the synagogue’s plate glass windows as well as casings on the pavement. She noticed that the defendant’s vehicle had already been opened and cleared to ensure no other hazards were present.
Dammann described how she then completed a complicated process of evidence collection. She and the photographer designated each room in the synagogue — thereby ensuring clear identification of where evidence was retrieved. Dammann and the photographer provided a label for each of the 11 victims — at that point the deceased had not been identified by the Allegheny County medical examiner. Dammann oversaw that careful measurements of the synagogue were undertaken so that the FBI laboratory could later perform scene-scaled diagrams. She also oversaw hand sketches of the scene.
Throughout this process, Dammann coordinated with nearly 60 individuals so that items weren’t compromised when measurements were being taken.
“This is when the glamorous job of a crime scene investigator becomes much more tedious,” acting U.S. Attorney Troy Rivetti remarked.
Damman described working with Mandy Tinkey, of the Allegheny County medical examiner’s office.
While the medical examiner’s team worked through the night identifying the victims, Dammann and the other agents tried to remain sensitive to Jewish burial customs.
“There was a Jewish organization that was there that was kind of advising us on appropriate methods and what they needed,” she said.
According to Jewish law, blood and other bodily material must be buried — to the best extent possible — along with the deceased.
Dammann said she and her team honored that precept as best they could.
She also described weapons, shell casings, and the defendant’s personal affects, which were each photographed and logged.
Along with observing photographs of firearms and magazines, jurors saw pictures of the defendant’s vehicle, a 2016 Hyundai Sonata, parked outside Tree of Life’s entrance.
Inside the car, Damman testified, was a green bag with shotgun shells and magazines, several pairs of safety glasses, an Anthony Arms membership card — a West Mifflin-based gun store — a pack of cigarettes and lighter, paperwork indicating the defendant’s ownership of the vehicle, crates of various chemicals, cleaning supplies, a flashlight, shooting glasses, razor and ear protection for the shooter’s use when firing.
Dammann testified about the painstaking process of not only documenting each item, but removing bullets and portions of bullets from walls, chairs and even a tree outside the building.
The jury was shown photographs indicating multiple items collected. In several images, were scattered Hebrew worksheets, strewn children’s books and displaced prayer shawls.
Before concluding her testimony, Dammann described the defendant’s wallet. Contents included an Allegheny County Sheriff’s Office license to carry a firearm, a commercial driver’s license in the defendant’s name, and a U.S. Concealed Carry Association membership card in the defendant’s name. Cataloging a crime scene is not like what’s commonly depicted on television, Dammann said. “It’s not like where we walk into the crime scene with high heels and analyze the evidence and leave with everything we need after 15 minutes.”
In afternoon testimony, Tinkey told how the medical examiner’s office worked into the early hours of Oct. 28, processing victims’ bodies and partnering with members of the Jewish burial society, the chevra kadisha. Despite individuals from the chevra kadisha “praying while we were doing work, nothing about them affected our ability to do our job that night,” Tinkey said.
She added that in deference to Jewish law, county staffers discarded bloodied gloves, protective suits and other personal gear into a separate bag so they could be buried.
Throughout Wednesday afternoon, jurors watched body cam footage taken from inside the Tree of Life building, heard from first responders and learned about the defendant’s actions and surrender on Oct. 27.
Michael O’Keefe, a retired tactical commander for the Allegheny County police, told jurors he heard the defendant say, “invaders were committing genocide on our people,” that he “needed to kill Jews,” and that he “has to take action, they are killing our children.”
O’Keefe added that the defendant told authorities he was surrendering because he was shot and that his rifle ran out of ammunition. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.