After murdering 11 people and injuring six others in the Tree of Life building— including four Pittsburgh Police officers — the shooter lay in a room upstairs in the synagogue, according to eyewitnesses who testified at an evidentiary hearing earlier this week.
Injured and afraid he would be killed by police — whose guns were trained on the entrance to the room — the shooter began negotiations that would allow him to come out and obtain medical attention, according to law enforcement officers at the hearing.
As the shooter crawled from the room, the officers testified, he made antisemitic statements, including, “They’re killing our children. All Jews have to die.”
Sixteen witnesses, including several police officers and medical personnel, testified on Oct. 12 and 13 before U.S. District Judge Donetta W. Ambrose, at a hearing held to determine whether prosecutors will be permitted to use at trial some of the statements the defendant made the day of the massacre. Defense attorneys want those statements suppressed, claiming he was “in custody” at the time and therefore should have been given his Miranda warnings and told of his right to an attorney and his right to remain silent.
The defendant faces more than 60 federal charges, including hate crime violations and obstruction of religious belief. He was not in the courtroom during the hearing, having waived his right to be there.
At issue are a series of conversations between the defendant and officers and medical personnel following two gun battles with police. The defendant made the statements in question while he crawled out of the room to officers; after he reached the officers and had been handcuffed; while being transported from the Tree of Life building to Allegheny General Hospital; and before and after his surgery.
Evidence of the defendant’s statements is included in recordings, reports from handwritten notes and video from the ambulance ride that was recorded on an officer’s body camera. Dozens of the conversations and portions of video were played during the hearing.
Lead Pittsburgh Police SWAT officer Stephen Mescan said the defendant’s remarks were spontaneous utterances and not the result of questioning while in custody.
Officer Clint Thimons testified that he took the lead in negotiations with the defendant, who initially expressed concern he would die in the room he was laying in if he didn’t get medical attention, and asked officers to come into the room to get him.
Thimons said he told the defendant that he had to crawl out on his own or he would die. Thimons and other offices said they were unwilling to go into the room because the suspect had already shot several officers and they did not know at that point whether he was acting alone.
When the accused began crawling out of the room, Thimons said he spoke to him, first in a tone that was loud and direct but eventually modulated to a more conversational volume.
“I was keeping him focused and awake,” Thimons said. “It seemed to take a long time. He said we would kill him. I told him we wouldn’t if we could see his hands.”
Thimons then asked him several questions, including his name, date of birth, what weapons he had and where they were located. He also asked the suspect why he attacked those in the synagogue. That question, Thimons said, was asked to keep the shooter focused on the officer’s voice, not to elicit answers to an interrogation. It was then the suspect said that Jews had to die.
After reaching officers and being handcuffed, the defendant was moved to a second room where he received medical attention. Thimons said that, because he was concerned there were other shooters in the building, he lied to the suspect, claiming he was seen on video walking into the building with another person.
The defendant, Thimons said, looked confused and said, “That must have been some f*cking Jew. I came here all by myself.”
Several officers, including Mescan and Thimons, said they did not believe the building was safe at that time, nor did they consider the suspect officially in custody. The questions they asked were to determine if there were other shooters or explosives in the building, they said.
Officer David Blahut recounted searching the building before hearing gunshots above him from a large caliber rifle. When he arrived on the floor where the suspect was hiding, he saw Officer Timothy Matson and noticed that he had been shot several times.
Blahut was one of the officers who eventually handcuffed the suspect. He said that while receiving medical treatment the suspect said, “These people are committing genocide on my people, and I want to kill Jews.”
Officer Andrew Miller, called by the defense, said he heard the suspect say, “Jews are the children of Satan. They are killing our children.”
Defense lawyers are also trying to suppress several statements made by the defendant while being transported to, and at, Allegheny General Hospital. He was accompanied to the hospital by several officers and medical technicians, including Pittsburgh Police Detective Robert Shaw and FBI Agent Matthew Patcher.
Shaw testified that he read the defendant his Miranda rights during the ride and, again, at the hospital, and each time asked the defendant whether he wanted to make a statement. The defendant, Shaw recounted, said he would like to speak with counsel.
Shaw said he did not interrogate the defendant once he “lawyered up,” but under the public safety exception to the Miranda rule he did ask the suspect about possible explosives and weapons at the Tree of Life building and at his home.
Patcher testified that he also asked the defendant about possible explosives in the building, qualifying his statements by saying, “We want to make sure no one gets hurt.”
Government and defense attorneys have 30 days to further brief their positions after they receive transcripts of the hearing.
The defendant has pleaded not guilty. If convicted, he faces a possible death penalty. Though the murders occurred three years ago, no trial date has yet been set in this case. PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.