Witnesses testify about synagogue shooter’s behavior and prison conditions

Witnesses testify about synagogue shooter’s behavior and prison conditions

Defendant's actions, hours of isolation and supermax facility discussed

Photo of the Joseph F. Weis. Jr. U.S. Courthouse on July 26, 2023 by Adam Reinherz
Photo of the Joseph F. Weis. Jr. U.S. Courthouse on July 26, 2023 by Adam Reinherz

Jurors in the Pittsburgh synagogue trial on Wednesday heard testimony about the defendant, his living conditions and a potential landing spot if he is sentenced to life in prison rather than death.

Shari Dodge, a neighbor of the defendant’s late grandfather, Lloyd Jenkins, described interactions she had with Robert Bowers between 2004 and 2014.

Dodge said that around 2004, the defendant — whom she called “Rob” — moved into his grandfather’s Whitehall residence. She and the defendant sometimes  exchanged pleasantries and small talk.

The only memorable engagement involved a “suspicious” van, she said.

“One day in the dead of summer it pulled up and nobody got out,” Dodge said. For one week, about eight hours a day, an individual sat inside the van. Several neighbors, as well as her husband, called the police.

“They didn’t seem especially concerned,” she said.

“I never saw it, but Rob told me he went up to the van and he was shaking it, and he was screaming, ‘There are kids next door,’” she testified.

The driver allegedly told the defendant, “This doesn’t concern you,” Dodge said.

She said she thought it was “very sweet” that the defendant looked out for her children and others in the neighborhood, and added that neighbors later learned the van was part of a “surveillance operation,” conducted by an insurance company to confirm whether a claimant in the area could walk.

After Jenkins’ death, Dodge said, the house was sold and the defendant told the neighbors he would be moving.

Pastor Jeffrey Dillinger, of Whitehall Church of Christ, said he met the defendant in late 2016, two years after a piece of “junk mail” advertising services was distributed.

The defendant came to the church with the mailing.

“That was a surprise to me,” Dillinger said.

Their first private meeting, which occurred in November 2016, was a “tell me about yourself type of thing, not too much theology,” the pastor said.

During that initial conversation, the defendant asked about studying the Book of Revelation.

The pastor discouraged the request given “difficulties” with the New Testament text.

“It has many different interpretations about the end of times,” Dillinger said.

The pastor gave the defendant Jerry Tallman’s “His Eternal Plan,” and began studying the evangelical resource with the defendant weekly. About one month after Dillinger and the defendant started studying together, Dillinger baptized the defendant in a private ceremony, at his request.

The pastor said that although he didn’t ask the defendant why he wished to be baptized privately, his understanding was that “he was a quiet individual.”

Dillinger added that the defendant didn’t associate with many churchgoers and “wasn’t very outgoing.”

“I am not a therapist but I would say he is socially awkward,” Dillinger said.

The pastor said he and the defendant continued studying together through Feb. 8, 2017.

The last time the defendant attended services was around mid-April 2017.

“He said he started work again and was traveling,” Dillinger said.

The next time the pastor heard about the defendant was after the Oct. 27, 2018, massacre.

Dillinger said that because of the defendant’s prior involvement in the church, an announcement was made during services and a prayer was offered for the families on the morning of Oct. 28, 2018.

Officers Adam Pry and Jeffrey Kengerski, both of the Butler County Prison, described the defendant’s living conditions and behavior during the past four years.

The defendant is locked in a cell where the toilet, sink and bed are bolted to the floor. Above his bed is a light that remains on 24 hours per day, for security purposes, Kengerski said.

When the defendant is permitted to leave his cell — between two and four hours a day — he is able to shower, shave, watch television or visit an indoor recreational yard.

Both officers testified the defendant has no interactions with other inmates.

Kengerski said the defendant is called “Uncle Bob,” and that since being relocated to the Butler County Prison in late October 2018 has been “pretty even-keeled.”

Maureen Baird, a corrections consultant who retired from the Federal Bureau of Prisons in 2016, testified that if the defendant receives life in prison without the possibility of release then the “only place” he could be safely housed is ADX, a supermax facility in Florence, Colorado.

The defendant may be a “target in another U.S. prison,” she said, given that he was convicted of a hate crime and because the victims were “elderly and vulnerable.”

Convicted mass murderers Timothy McVeigh and Ted Kaczynski were inmates of ADX.

If sent to the federal prison, and placed in its H Unit, the defendant would spend 22 to 23 hours a day in a cell. For one or two hours a day, the defendant could access an indoor recreation area or an outdoor caged area.

In neither space, she noted, would he be permitted to engage with other prisoners.

“At ADX inmates are single-celled, everything is very controlled, it’s a very secure institution,” she said.

Baird is scheduled to continue testifying tomorrow. PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.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.

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