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Bullets used in synagogue shooting were designed to inflict ‘maximum damage’

  • Julia Zenkevich/WESA
FILE - A makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the synagogue. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

FILE - A makeshift memorial stands outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018 in the aftermath of a deadly shooting at the synagogue. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

Two former investigators for the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said bullets used in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting were military grade and designed to cause maximum damage.

Defendant Robert Bowers is accused of shooting and killing 11 Jewish worshipers and wounding six others on Oct. 27, 2018 at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill.

Retired ATF Special Agent Kevin Kauffman testified Monday in U.S. District Court that the five firearms recovered at the synagogue shooting scene included three Glock pistols, a Mossberg shotgun and an AR-15-style Colt rifle, as well as various types of spent and unspent ammunition.

He explained the elements of an ammunition cartridge and how firearms typically work. He also detailed his analysis of the firearm and ammunition manufacturers, saying he determined that all of the weapons and ammunition had crossed state lines before the shooting. Proving that the weapons and ammunition crossed state lines is a required element for some of the 63 federal offenses with which Bowers is charged.

Kauffman told the jury that some of the ammunition fired from the Colt rifle bore a NATO symbol on the outside, indicating that it was suitable for military use. According to Kauffman, governments and military organizations require standards for ammunition that are higher than the requirements for ammunition manufactured for the general market, which are less stringent.

Brett Mills, a retired FBI supervisory forensic examiner in the bureau’s firearms and toolmarks unit, testified that he examined the firearms and the spent and unspent ammunition as part of the initial investigation of the synagogue shooting in 2018. He explained the testing and examination process to jurors, and how he identified the ammunition and determined if it had been fired from one of the guns used in the attack. He also told jurors where investigators found the spent ammunition in the synagogue.

Mills described some of the ammunition fired in the synagogue as solid copper bullets with tips like a Phillips-head screwdriver, known as “xtreme penetrator” bullets.

“These are supposed to create maximum wound cavitation,” he said.

Both Kauffman and Mills testified that the bullets themselves were manufactured by Lehigh Defense in eastern Pennsylvania. The cartridge cases were made by Starline Brass in Missouri. The components were then sent to Underwood Ammo in Illinois, where they were assembled and sold.

Earlier in the day, two owners of two holster-manufacturing companies also testified that Bowers bought their products or communicated with them about their products.

Mark Hetfield, the president of the Jewish refugee resettlement agency HIAS, also testified Monday, telling jurors that Jewish beliefs and traditions are foundational to the group’s work. HIAS was first established as the Hebrew Immigrants Aid Society in 1903 to help Jews fleeing pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe.

“HIAS used to welcome refugees because they are Jewish,” Hetfield said. “Today we welcome refugees because we are Jewish.”

Bowers singled out the agency on the social media site Gab before allegedly attacking three congregations while they worshiped at the synagogue. Gab is a social media website where antisemitic content is common and not removed by moderators. Bowers was reportedly an active poster on the site.

The defense has said Bowers chose the synagogue because one of the congregations supported the refugee group. Prosecutors argue Bowers was motivated by antisemitism.

Gab founder and CEO Andrew Torba testified after Hetfield. Torba said antisemitic content is permitted on Gab and is removed only if it violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Prosecutors, for the most part, asked Torba about information gathered from Bowers’ profile, but lawyers for the defense spotlighted Torba’s own far-right beliefs and the conspiracy theories and hate speech that often dominate Gab.

Defense lawyer Michael Burt asked Torba about posts he allegedly made about accelerationism, trans-humanism, and the white-supremacist conspiracy theory that white Americans are being “replaced.”

Torba confirmed that Bowers’ account was shut down not because of his antisemitic posts, but because he was believed to be involved in the synagogue shooting.

Prosecutors also began to dig into Bowers’ own Gab posts. FBI tactical specialist Evan Browne walked the jury through a sampling of antisemitic posts made by an account connected to Bowers in the month leading up to the attack.

Bowers repeatedly posted threats and slurs towards Jewish people online, used slurs and called for violence against Jewish people. The account also posted images of guns and ammunition.

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