PITTSBURGH — Nearly a week after 11 people were gunned down at a synagogue here, details about the man charged in the attack remain scant but suggest an early life that was in some ways tumultuous.
Robert Bowers, 46, has been charged with dozens of counts in federal court, and prosecutors have signaled they are likely to seek a death penalty for crimes they said “represent the worst of humanity.” Bowers pleaded not guilty during a brief court appearance Thursday.
But while rage-filled anti-Semitic online posts from an account bearing Bowers’s name have drawn considerable attention, his offline life left startlingly little impression on people who met him before the massacre, and details of how he spent his days remained scarce.
The elements of his background that have emerged since the bloodshed at Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27 suggested moments of instability in his early life, including family divorces, moves and ultimately being raised by his grandparents.
When Bowers was born, his mother was married to Randall G. Bowers. Court records show that the couple divorced in August 1973, just days before Robert Bowers’s first birthday. Authorities have not confirmed that this man is Bowers’s biological father, and the suspected attacker’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment Friday.
When Bowers was as young as 3 or 4 years old, his mother, Barbara, married Robert Saiter in Florida, Saiter said in an interview Thursday. Saiter, who was in the Air Force at the time, said the couple stayed together for less than a year before separating.
Saiter recalled Bowers as a “normal kid and well-behaved” while living as a toddler in Florida.
“I never had any problems with him — he was a very good kid,” said Saiter, who said Bowers liked to play with trucks and cars as a young boy. “This is a shock to me. This completely blew my mind.”
Bowers’s mother then moved back in with her parents in Pennsylvania, Saiter said. Her parents raised their grandson, Saiter said, because his mother developed health issues. Neighbors of Bowers’s grandfather said that the suspected attacker spent much of his high school years at the man’s home in Whitehall, Pa.
Saiter said he did not know anything about Bowers’s father.
Six years after Barbara and Randall Bowers were divorced, Randall Bowers was accused of rape in Pittsburgh, according to a criminal complaint filed in 1979. According to a Pittsburgh Press article at the time, Randall Bowers, then 27, allegedly followed a woman from a pizza shop, got into her car and forced her to drive him to Squirrel Hill — the same neighborhood that is home to Tree of Life synagogue.
According to the article, the suspect threatened to kill the 20-year-old woman and then sexually assaulted her.
According to the criminal complaint, in late April 1979, Randall Bowers — listed as a “laborer” — was accused of rape along with indecent assault, simple assault and “involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.” News accounts from that month state that Bowers was “caught by Squirrel Hill residents and turned over to police.”
Randall Bowers’s mother, Ann, posted bail, and he was released pending trial, according to court records. A few months later, Randall Bowers was found dead.
Court files show that Randall Bowers died Oct. 15, 1979, from a gunshot wound to his chest. It was deemed a suicide. A news story nearly two weeks later said he was found “in a picnic area near the Tionesta Dam” after firing a .22-caliber rifle at his chest.
It was about a month after Robert Bowers’s seventh birthday. It is unclear what, if any, relationship Robert Bowers had with Randall Bowers at the time.
The coroner's report concluded that Randall Bowers was worried about going to prison and that the motivation for the suicide was “depression . . . and the belief that he was certain to get jail time” and be injured in prison, according to the current coroner.
A copy of the report was read to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette by Forest County Coroner Norman J. Wimer, the newspaper reported. Wimer confirmed that account to The Washington Post. The coroner’s report stated that the elder Bowers’s body was found underneath a picnic table with antidepressant drugs not far away. Wimer said Randall Bowers had not been seen for about a week when his body was found, and officials determined that he could have been dead for that period.
The criminal complaint and related records were released Friday by the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office. Reporters sought the files this week, but the district attorney’s office briefly had them sealed by a judge Thursday so authorities could redact the identity of the victim and witnesses.
Relatives of Randall Bowers could not be reached for comment this week. A woman reached at what is believed to be one relative’s home declined to comment and hung up when a reporter identified himself. A woman who answered at another declined to comment.
Much of the rest of Robert Bowers’s life remains a mystery. He attended high school in Baldwin, Pa., but did not graduate. He was not well-known to neighbors, who said he kept a low profile and gave no indication of the racist views he espoused online.
Robert Bowers’s mother, Barbara Bolt, has not publicly commented on the shooting, but she is distraught about what happened, said Mark Schollaert, pastor of First Baptist Monongahela Church, where she is a parishioner. Schollaert said Bolt had asked him to speak on her behalf.
“She doesn’t condone at all what her son has done,” Schollaert said this week. “She’s praying for the families of the victims and their friends.”
St. Martin is a freelance journalist based in South Bend, Ind. St. Martin reported from Rensselaer, Ind.; Berman reported from Washington. Alice Crites, Annie Gowen, Julie Tate and Katie Zezima in Washington, Tim Craig in Pittsburgh, and Noah Smith in Sunland, Calif., contributed to this report.