First responders testify in Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial
PITTSBURGH — Day Five of the trial against Robert Bowers, the man accused of shooting and killing 11 worshippers at a Squirrel Hill synagogue, continued Monday with more witnesses taking the stand.
First responders who were among the first on the scene of the shooting, including Officer Michael Smidga, who exchanged gunfire with Bowers, and Officer Steve Mescan, who was part of the group to take him into custody, testified Friday.
PITTSBURGH SYNAGOGUE SHOOTING TRIAL: FULL COVERAGE ⇒
Channel 11 has a sketch artist inside the courtroom | Click here to see photos from throughout the trial
Warning: the details coming out of this trial are difficult to hear and may be upsetting to some.
If you or someone you know is experiencing mental health effects from the trial, go to 1027healingpartnership.org to find help resources. As always, call 911 to report threats.
We had a team of reporters inside the courthouse and had live updates throughout the day.
Testimony has ended for the day. Andrew Miller will take the stand first on Tuesday.
Andrew Miller, a Pittsburgh SWAT officer, is called to the stand.
Miller said that he heard officers come under gunfire from inside the synagogue and that the shooter had retreated back inside.
A couple came from the pew area and walked towards Miller. That couple was Joe Charny and Audrey Glickman.
"They were calm and just walked toward us," Miller remembered.
Justin Sypolt, district chief for the City of Pittsburgh Bureau of EMS, is called to the stand.
Sypolt carried Dan Leger out of the building. He said Leger was alive and reaching out to him.
Eric Barazotto is the next witness called to the stand. He worked for the Bureau of EMS at the time of the shooting.
Barazotto is trained as a tactical paramedic with SWAT, and is a diver in water rescues.
When he arrives to a SWAT call, he wears a ballistic vest, helmet and medical equipment and is armed with a gun.
Barazotto said he was at home and in bed on that day. An app told him "Active shooter, possibly victims and police officers shot."
"Immediately jumped out of bed, found whatever clothes I could and ran out the door," Barazotto said. "It was shocking to read. I didn't believe it at first."
Barazotto ran into Tree of Life unarmed.
"I’m going to run in and see if I can help," he explained. He did not wait for the SWAT van to arrive.
"I was going into an active shooter situation with known victims," Barazotto said.
One of Barazotto's partners screamed that he found a survivor.
"I was surprised. I asked him to repeat that. He said he had a victim still alive," Barazotto said. "He was critical, gunshot wound to abdomen. He was very ashen."
Paramedics got the survivor, Dan Leger, to a stretcher and safely out of the building before running back in.
Saldutte returned to the witness stand at 1:16 p.m. and returned to describing the moment he ran out of ammunition.
"From the time I entered the room all the way through when I left the room, rounds were being fired by the shooter," he said, explaining he went to the next room to reload his gun.
"It was extremely chaotic," Saldutte said. "I was on my hands and knees crawling. I was trying to get out of the way."
Saldutte said when he finished reloading, it ended.
"I’m thinking he's coming out after us where I’m at," Saldutte said. "Officer Burke got shot in the rescue of Officer Matson. He was bleeding and Officer Persin put a tourniquet on him."
"I’ll never forget this," Saldutte said. "He [Bowers] said, ‘The Jews are killing our women and children and I had to do this.’"
Saldutte said there were concerns that Bowers had an IED on him.
"He had very bulky clothing on, a heavier jacket, like a winter coat," Saldutte explained.
Court is in session after an unexpected break.
Court has not yet resumed. The judge is in a closed session.
An unexpected break is being taken in the courtroom. Court will reconvene at 12:45 p.m.
Saldutte continues with his testimony. He is shown a photograph and says that's the area where he ended up standing. By what he saw, he assumes the woman was shot in the head.
He came across a white male who had a large pool of blood coming from his head.
He started heading toward the basement area. He found rifle brass downstairs. There was a large room downstairs. A room with locked doors, he said. They got no response and they started to clear.
Eventually, they entered the kitchen in the basement. After the rooms, they cleared a small chapel and then went into the kitchen, where they found two deceased males. One had a gunshot wound to the head. The other, I didn't see any trauma, nothing indicated he was shot but we checked for a pulse and he was deceased, Saldutte said.
We found one male shot dead in the basement chapel and two still living who were sent out the back door, he says.
The two dead men in the kitchen were in the back of the kitchen. They were next to each other, huddled together, overlapping each other on the ground, Saldutte says.
Several photos are shown in the courtroom, with Saldutte describing what is being shown, including the landing looking into the basement, the view from the bottom of the steps, looking into the kitchen, looking into the chapel, and bullet and blood spatter on the doors.
I went back up the staircase, Saldutte says, to the next level and Mescan was there. He said to go up to the next level.
Saldutte went up four flights of stairs to find Matson. I cleared that floor and stairwell where Matson was, he says. There was a rifle magazine on the steps. We believed he was still in the building and there could be more victims. We cleared several small classrooms.
Prior to making entry, eight to ten SWAT operators in that area had a conversation about what to do next, using different tools, like K9 or robots. There were none available so we continued to push and clear the building, Saldutte says.
Two officers pushed in first and Matson and I set up on the closed door. We got set and I turned the handle and opened the door, he says.
The room is dark and Matson made entry. As soon as he made entry, I go in the opposite direction of him to create two different people going in different directions. We are trying to create confusion in that room. One step inside the room, I saw his head and body turn to the left. He fell straight down. As soon as I looked down, I could see his pants on his left hip poofing and holes in his pants. He was being shot at that time. His body language — I knew something wasn't right, Saldutte says.
The shooter fired first. I dove in front of (Matson). He was laying on the ground being shot, so I dove in front of him. I was in front of him just inside the room. As soon as I hit the ground, I heard gunfire and saw muzzle flash, Saldutte says. It was completely dark. It was completely pitch black. I activated my light. All I could see was haze. I could not see the shooter.
The muzzle flash came from the back left corner of the room. I started shooting to the left back corner of the room and it began moving and I was shooting as the muzzle flash moved across the room and then I ran out of ammunition.
I was laying on my side and could not reload so I sat up to try to reload. I kicked someone's leg and it was another SWAT officer in the room and I turned and crawled out of the room, Saldutte says. Running out of ammo in that situation is probably the worst feeling I’ve ever had in my life. That was probably the worst experience in my life.
At some point, Matson screamed.
The prosecutor asked Saldutte about some of the photos being shown. At that point, the judge asked the prosecutor to take down the photos and addressed the jury.
They are not pleasant to look at, the judge said. You should not let these photos stir up emotions as to prejudice Mr. Bowers. Some of the photos you may find moving. I will ask that there be no reaction to them.
Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting Trial 6/5/23 This is SWAT Officer Michael Saldutte during his testimony this morning before an unexpected early break. (Sketches by Emily Goff)
The judge is back from a sidebar with the defense and prosecution. The jurors are being brought in.
SWAT Officer Michael Saldutte is on the witness stand. He has been with the Pittsburgh police for 18 years. He is a use-of-force trainer at the academy. He is a team leader and a sniper.
Saldutte is asked to review photos and asked if they are familiar and accurate. He says they are accurate images of what he saw in the synagogue. The judge agress to admit the photos.
Saldutte says he was at home with his wife and kids on the day of the shooting. As soon as he looked at his phone, he knew it was serious, he said.
One SWAT team had already made entry and we went in from another area, he said. The glass was shot out from bullet holes. A photo from above the synagogue is shown.
Saldutte describes where he made entry with his team. A photo of a shot-out window that Saldutte saw is shown. There were bullet holes in those windows, he says. Photos of doors that he went through are shown. It was locked, but I opened the right one and we went in. he says.
I was overcome with a strong smell of burnt gunpowder and rifle brass in the vestibule, Saldutte says. There were large casings, so it wasn't a pistol. It's a rifle round....that travels at a high velocity and causes a large amount of damage. As soon as I went through the doorway, I looked right and I looked left and I saw several bodies laying inside and pools of blood.
From that position there, the first person I saw was a male with a large pool of blood and my presumption was he was dead, Saldutte said. I went through those doors and began clearing that area and they began checking victims.
I wanted to lock down that area. I stepped over a female that I believe had been shot in the head. I don't want this to sound insensitive, he said. I’m just trying to take emotion out. I looked down and there was brain matter and hair on the steps and on the wall behind her.
I heard someone call out that there was someone alive. Medics or SWAT took the injured person out, and three others in that area were deceased. I thought it was a female, but it was a white male, Saldutte said.
The defense says the judge should tell jurors, "You should not let these photos stir up your emotions."
The prosecution does not endorse this language. The judge says he’ll decide on that later.
The judge says he will remind everyone to not photograph, copy or record those pieces of evidence, saying, "I intend to ensure that these photos do not make their way into public use."
The only question is whether all of the photos are needed, the judge said. They are graphic. They are relevant. There is nothing more relevant than these photos. The objection is overruled, the judge said.
Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting Trial (6/5/23) Defense Attorney Ashwin Cattamanchi objecting to the use of multiple graphic photos ahead of the morning session. (Sketches by Emily Goff)
Court has opened with objections from the defense over showing the jurors graphic photos of the deceased victims.
The defense wants to limit jury exposure to only one photo of each victim and argued there is no value in showing 14 photos of deceased victims. It serves no purpose other than to appeal to jurors’ emotions, the defense claims.
The judge said it helps me understand the layout and that's what it looks like.
The defense said it's unclear why multiple photos are necessary.
The prosecution responded, saying the court reviewed every image and ruled that they were not prejudiced. It's important to prove every aspect of the case. We have to show bodily injury, the prosecution said. We have to show the defendant used his weapon to kill these individuals.
These images show the identity of the victims, which hasn't been established yet, the prosecution said.
These images corroborate victim testimony regarding what they saw and heard. These are necessary, the prosecution said. The locations of victims’ bodies in relation to bullet holes are essential for the presentation of this case, the prosecution said. There are 11 victims in this case. Part of the reason why there are so many images is because the defendant killed 11 people.
We urge the court to affirm its ruling, the prosecution argued.
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