Pittsburgh, Oct 30 (AP/UNB) — The man charged in the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre was brought into court in a wheelchair Monday, as some members of the Jewish community and others objected to President Donald Trump's plans to visit, accusing him of contributing to a toxic political climate in the U.S. that might have led to the bloodshed.
With the first funerals set for Tuesday, the White House announced that Trump and first lady Melania Trump will visit the same day to "express the support of the American people and to grieve with the Pittsburgh community" over the 11 congregants killed Saturday in the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.
Some Pittsburghers urged Trump to stay away.
"His language has encouraged hatred and fear of immigrants, which is part of the reason why these people were killed," said Marianne Novy, 73, a retired college English professor who lives in the city's Squirrel Hill section, the historic Jewish neighborhood where the attack at the Tree of Life synagogue took place.
Meanwhile, the alleged gunman, 46-year-old truck driver Robert Gregory Bowers, was released from the hospital where he was treated for wounds suffered in a gun battle with police. Hours later he was wheeled into a downtown federal courtroom in handcuffs to face charges.
A judge ordered him held without bail for a preliminary hearing on Thursday, when prosecutors will outline their case. He did not enter a plea.
During the brief proceeding, Bowers talked with two court-appointed lawyers and said little more than "Yes" in a soft voice a few times in response to routine questions from the judge. Courtroom deputies freed one of his cuffed hands so he could sign paperwork.
He was expressionless.
"It was not the face of villainy that I thought we'd see," said Jon Pushinsky, a congregant who was in court for the hearing.
Federal prosecutors are pressing for the death penalty against Bowers, who authorities say expressed hatred of Jews during the attack and later told police, "I just want to kill Jews" and "All these Jews need to die."
After the hearing, U.S. Attorney Scott Brady called the shootings "horrific acts of violence" and added: "Rest assured we have a team of prosecutors working hard to ensure that justice is done."
The weekend massacre — which took place 10 days before the midterm elections — heightened tensions around the country, coming just a day after the arrest of the Florida man accused of sending a wave of pipe bombs to Trump critics.
The mail bomb attacks and the bloodshed in Pittsburgh set off debate over whether the corrosive political atmosphere in Washington and beyond contributed to the violence and whether Trump himself bears any blame because of his combative language.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, a Democrat, said the White House should contact the victims' families and ask them if they want the president to come. He also warned Trump to stay away when the first funerals are held.
"If the president is looking to come to Pittsburgh, I would ask that he not do so while we are burying the dead," Peduto said. "Our attention and our focus is going to be on them, and we don't have public safety that we can take away from what is needed in order to do both."
The White House did not immediately respond to the mayor's request. Asked if Trump has done enough to condemn white nationalism, spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said he has "denounced racism, hatred and bigotry in all forms on a number of occasions."
Some looked forward to the president's visit.
Tree of Life Rabbi Jeffrey Myers said that Trump is "certainly welcome."
"I am a citizen. He is my president," Myers told CNN.
But Barry Werber, 76, who hid in a dark storage closet as the gunman rampaged through the synagogue, said he doesn't want Trump to come to Pittsburgh. He said Trump is trying to "instigate his base," and "bigots are coming out of the woodwork."
Kristin Wessell, a homemaker who lives near Squirrel Hill, also said Trump should steer clear of Pittsburgh, to let the victims' families "grieve how they see fit."
"I feel a lot of his comments are very much dog whistles to nationalists and white supremacists and racists. So, yeah, I do place part of the blame on this on him," said Wessell, a Democrat, who was passing out bouquets to passersby across the street from a kosher grocery store. "Anti-Semitism has always existed. But I feel like he is giving cover to people to be more blatant about it. And to be more violent about it, rather than trying to calm and heal."
The youngest of the 11 dead was 54, the oldest 97. The toll included a husband and wife, professors, dentists and physicians.
Bowers was charged with offenses that included causing death while obstructing a person's right to the free exercise of religion — a hate crime — and using a gun to commit murder. He was also charged under state law with criminal homicide, aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation.
The president of the hospital where a wounded Bowers was taken said that he was ranting against Jews even as Jewish staff members were treating him.
"He's taken into my hospital and he's shouting, 'I want to kill all the Jews!' and the first three people who are taking care of him are Jewish," Jeffrey Cohen of Allegheny General Hospital told ABC's "Good Morning America." ''Ain't that a kick in the pants?"
Cohen, who is also Jewish and a member of Tree of Life synagogue, said he stopped by Bowers' room.
"I just asked how he was doing, was he in pain, and he said no, he was fine," Cohen said. "He asked who I was, and I said, 'I'm Dr. Cohen, the president of the hospital,' and I turned around and left."
He said the FBI agent outside Bowers' room told him he didn't think he could have done that. "And I said, 'If you were in my shoes I'm sure you could have,'" Cohen said.
Just minutes before the synagogue attack, Bowers apparently took to social media to rage against HIAS, a Jewish organization that resettles refugees under contract with the U.S. government.
"HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people," he is believed to have written on Gab.com, a social media site favored by right-wing extremists. "I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in."
HIAS had recently weighed in on the migrant caravan heading toward the U.S. from Central America, urging the Trump administration to "provide all asylum seekers the opportunity to present their claims as required by law." The president has vilified the caravan and pledged to stop the migrants.
One of the targets of the mail bomb attacks last week was liberal Jewish philanthropist George Soros, who has been accused by far-right conspiracy theorists of paying migrants to join the caravan.
Bowers was a long-haul trucker who worked for himself, authorities said. Little else was known about the suspect,who had no apparent criminal record.
Washington, Oct 30 (AP/UNB) — The Pentagon said Monday it is sending 5,200 troops to the Southwest border in an extraordinary military operation ordered up just a week before midterm elections in which President Donald Trump has put a sharp focus on Central American migrants moving north in slow-moving caravans that are still hundreds of miles from the U.S.
The number of troops being deployed is more than double the 2,000 who are in Syria fighting the Islamic State group.
Trump, eager to keep voters focused on illegal immigration in the lead-up to the elections, stepped up his dire warnings about the caravans, tweeting, "This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!"
But any migrants who complete the long trek to the southern U.S. border already face major hurdles — both physical and bureaucratic — to being allowed into the United States.
In an interview Monday, Trump said the U.S. would build "tent cities" for asylum seekers.
"We're going to put tents up all over the place," told Fox News Channel's Laura Ingraham. "We're not going to build structures and spend all of this, you know, hundreds of millions of dollars — we're going to have tents. They're going to be very nice and they're going to wait and if they don't get asylum, they get out."
The Pentagon's "Operation Faithful Patriot" was described by the commander of U.S. Northern Command as an effort to help Customs and Border Protection "harden the southern border" by stiffening defenses at and near legal entry points. Advanced helicopters will allow border protection agents to swoop down on migrants trying to cross illegally, said Air Force Gen. Terrence O'Shaughnessy.
Troops planned to bring heavy concertina wiring to unspool across open spaces between ports.
"We will not allow a large group to enter the U.S. in an unlawful and unsafe manner," said Kevin McAleenan, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection.
Eight hundred troops already are on their way to southern Texas, O'Shaughnessy said, and their numbers will top 5,200 by week's end. Some of the troops will be armed. He said troops would focus first on Texas, followed by Arizona and then California.
The troops will join the more than 2,000 National Guardsmen that Trump has already deployed to the border. It remained unclear Monday why the administration was choosing to send active-duty troops given that they will be limited to performing the same support functions the Guard already is doing.
The number of people in the first migrant caravan headed toward the U.S. has dwindled to about 4,000 from about 7,000 last week, though a second one was gaining steam and marked by violence. About 600 migrants in the second group tried to cross a bridge from Guatemala to Mexico en masse Monday. The riverbank standoff with Mexico police followed a more violent confrontation Sunday when the migrants used sticks and rocks against officers. One migrant was killed Sunday night by a head wound, but the cause was unclear.
The first group passed through the spot via the river — wading or on rafts — and was advancing through southern Mexico. That group appeared to begin as a collection of about 160 who decided to band together in Honduras for protection against the gangs who prey on migrants traveling alone and snowballed as the group moved north. They are mostly from Honduras, where it started, as well as El Salvador and Guatemala.
Another, smaller caravan earlier this year dwindled greatly as it passed through Mexico, with only about 200 making it to the California border.
Migrants are entitled under both U.S. and international law to apply for asylum. But there already is a bottleneck of would-be asylum seekers waiting at some U.S. border crossings to make their claims, some waiting as long as five weeks.
McAleenan said the aim of the operation was to deter migrants from crossing illegally, but he conceded his officers were overwhelmed by a surge of asylum seekers at border crossings. He also said Mexico was prepared to offer asylum to members of the caravan.
"If you're already seeking asylum, you've been given a generous offer," he said of Mexico. "We want to work with Mexico to manage that flow."
The White House is also weighing additional border security measures, including blocking those traveling in the caravan from seeking legal asylum and preventing them from entering the U.S.
The military operation drew quick criticism.
"Sending active military forces to our southern border is not only a huge waste of taxpayer money, but an unnecessary course of action that will further terrorize and militarize our border communities," said Shaw Drake of the American Civil Liberties Union's border rights center at El Paso, Texas.
Military personnel are legally prohibited from engaging in immigration enforcement. The troops will include military police, combat engineers and others helping on the border.
The escalating rhetoric over the migrants and expected deployments come as the president has been trying to turn the caravans into a key election issue just days before elections that will determine whether Republicans maintain control of Congress.
"This will be the election of the caravans, the Kavanaughs, law and order, tax cuts, and you know what else? It's going to be the election of common sense," Trump said at a rally in Illinois on Saturday night.
On Monday, he tweeted without providing evidence, "Many Gang Members and some very bad people are mixed into the Caravan heading to our Southern Border."
"Please go back," he urged them, "you will not be admitted into the United States unless you go through the legal process. This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!"
It's possible there are criminals mixed in, but Trump has not substantiated his claim that members of the MS-13 gang, in particular, are among them.
The troops are expected to perform a wide variety of functions such as transporting supplies for the Border Patrol, but not engage directly with migrants seeking to cross the border, officials said. One U.S. official said the troops will be sent initially to staging bases in California, Texas and Arizona while the CBP works out precisely where it wants the troops positioned. U.S. Transportation Command posted a video on its Facebook page Monday of a C-17 transport plane that it said was delivering Army equipment to the Southwest border in support of the operation.
The U.S. military has already begun delivering jersey barriers to the southern border in conjunction with the deployment plans.
Argentina, Oct 29 (AP/UNB) — The U.S. Geological Survey says an earthquake with a preliminary magnitude of 6.3 has struck off the southern tip of South America.
The quake, which hit at 2:54 a.m. local time Monday, was centered in the ocean, 312.9 kilometers (194 miles) south southeast of Ushuaia, Argentina, and 552 kilometers (342 miles) south southeast of Punta Arenas, Chile.
The agency said the quake was at a relatively shallow depth of 10 kilometers (6 miles).
Sioux Falls, Oct 29 (AP/UNB) — A man who killed a South Dakota prison guard in a failed escape seven years ago is scheduled to be executed Monday after dropping his death penalty appeal.
Rodney Berget, 56, will be put to death for the 2011 slaying of Ronald "R.J." Johnson, who was beaten with a pipe and had his head covered in plastic wrap at the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls. It will be the state's first execution since 2012 and just its fourth since reinstating the death penalty in the late 1970s.
Berget admitted to his role in the slaying. He and inmate Eric Robert attacked Johnson on April 12, 2011 — Johnson's 63rd birthday — in a part of the penitentiary known as Pheasantland Industries, where inmates work on upholstery, signs, furniture and other projects.
After beating Johnson and leaving his body, Robert put on Johnson's pants, hat and jacket and pushed a cart loaded with two boxes, one with Berget inside, toward the exits. They made it through one gate but were stopped by another guard before they could complete their escape through a second gate.
Robert was executed on Oct. 15, 2012. The last execution in South Dakota was on Oct. 30, 2012.
Berget's mental status and death penalty eligibility slowed his case. Berget in 2016 appealed his death sentence, but later asked to withdraw the appeal against his lawyers' advice. Berget wrote to a judge saying he thought the death penalty eventually would be overturned and that he couldn't imagine spending "another 30 years in a cage doing a life sentence."
On Friday, Gov. Dennis Daugaard said he had no plans to block the execution. The state Supreme Court rejected one challenge to the state's method of execution, but a second was pending that argued Berget lacks intellectual capacity to be executed.
Johnson's family plans to witness the execution, which is scheduled for 1:30 p.m.
His widow, Lynette Johnson, sized down R.J.'s wedding ring and now wears it next to her own; she keeps his watch — its hands frozen at the time he was attacked — in a clear case next to photos above her fireplace.
"He was so kind," she told the Argus Leader . "He didn't have a bad word to say about anybody."
Lynette Johnson said she was nervous about the execution, worried that Berget might try to escape. She said his death may bring a sense of security.
The Department of Corrections has said it plans to use a single drug. Its policy calls for either sodium thiopental or pentobarbital. Pentobarbital was used in its last two executions.
South Dakota has not had issues with obtaining the drugs it needs, as some other states have, perhaps because the state shrouds some details in secrecy. Lawmakers in 2013 approved hiding the identities of its suppliers.
After the execution, witnesses and others will meet with media at a guard training academy on prison grounds that was named for Johnson. It was dedicated one year after his death.
Berget will be the second member of his family to be executed. His older brother, Roger, was executed in Oklahoma in 2000 for killing a man to steal his car.
Dennis Davis, director of South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said a prayer vigil is planned outside the prison on Monday.
"We think we are better than this and we hope that some day we can get it abolished," Davis said of the death penalty.
Louisville, Oct 29 (AP/UNB) — She flipped through television channels and radio stations, scanning from conservative to liberal media, searching for any sign that the polarized nation had finally reached its tipping point.
For days, Elisa Karem Parker had been seeing updates in the news: A pipe bomb sent to liberal political donor George Soros. One delivered to CNN. More to former President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and other prominent political figures villainized by those on the right — a bizarre plot unfolding just ahead of the midterm election that will decide which party controls Congress.
"It's like our country is becoming 'The Hunger Games,'" Parker, who considers herself squarely in the middle of the political divide, told her husband and teenage son over dinner.
As authorities intercepted more than a dozen pipe bombs addressed to President Donald Trump's most ardent critics — and then, on Saturday, as news broke of yet another mass shooting in America — political scientists and ordinary citizens observed again that rabid partisanship had devolved to the point of acts of violent extremism. Many wonder whether this latest spasm might be the moment that the nation collectively considers how poisonous the political culture has become and decides to turn the other way.
"If this isn't it, I'd hate to think about what it will take," said Parker as she cast her ballot in early voting last week in Louisville, Kentucky.
The mail-bomb plot is merely the latest in a series of stunning attacks to test how much political animosity Americans are willing to accept: the shooting of a Republican congressman at a baseball practice , the white supremacist rally that turned deadly in Virginia, the recent ricin scare-letters mailed to Trump and other top members of his administration.
On Friday, authorities arrested a suspect in the bomb probe — a 56-year-old registered Republican and Trump enthusiast who "appears to be a partisan," Attorney General Jeff Sessions said when asked about motive. By then, politicians and talking heads had already backed into the usual corners. Both parties blamed the other, and the president called for unity, then again described liberals and the media as villains. The hope Parker had that this might be a turning point faded.
Then came the shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue that claimed 11 lives, an attack likely to cause ugly partisan debates over gun control, hate speech and more.
"I just can't believe the kind of violence that we're experiencing in our country," Pittsburgh resident Cindy Jennings said at a vigil for those targeted at the Tree of Life Synagogue. "I feel like the leadership in our country right now is just encouraging violence, and I wish that that would stop."
The volatile tribalism now so ingrained in American life will eventually right itself, says Robb Willer, a sociology professor at Stanford University, but not until the public decides it's had enough and stops rewarding politicians who use incendiary language and demonize the other side. It's impossible to guess, he notes, how much damage will be done in the meantime.
"That is the question of our time: Are we going to choose to continue the war, or are we going to choose peace? And we don't know yet what the answer to that will be, because while a majority of Americans are fed up with the extremity of our political divisions, it does feel like we're stuck here," Willer says. "It will get worse before it gets better."
Animosity between parties has been growing for decades now, to the point that studies show Republicans and Democrats don't want to date one another, don't want their children to marry one another and don't want to live in the same neighborhoods at a rate unprecedented in modern America. At the same time, politicians began using increasingly apocalyptic language. Willer says those two forces — the splintering of society along party lines and the ascent of vitriolic campaigning — merged to create a breeding ground for violence.
"It was simmering," says Parker. "It's like the gas burner was on, then Trump lit the fire."
The president vaulted to political prominence by promoting the racist and false conspiracy theory that Obama was not born in the United States, launched his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans rapists and murderers, and routinely describes his enemies, including the intended recipients of the pipe bombs, as "evil," ''dangerous," ''the enemy of the American people."
"That let loose a period of incivility, which is too mild a word; it's potentially explosive anger that can turn into violence," says Bob Shrum, a former Democratic strategist who last month started the Center for the Political Future, a program at the University of Southern California designed to restore sanity and bipartisanship in politics.
He's watched with frustration as some liberal politicians respond to Trump's presidency by imitating his divisive style. He describes it as a "cold civil war," where people consider those who disagree with them bad, un-American — their enemy.
"Is there a tipping point? I don't know," he says. "I do believe we're in a dangerous moment, unlike anything I've seen in my lifetime, and I'm 75 years old."
There is little evidence the tide will turn soon.
Moderates are becoming increasingly rare in Washington, D.C., and Republicans willing to criticize Trump's rhetoric, such as Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, are not running for re-election.
"You don't really have those reasonable voices kind of trying to bring everybody together," says Tom Freeman, a Republican attorney in Lincoln, Nebraska. "It's just kind of round and round we go, and the sides just get more and more extreme, and you don't have that rational leader in the crowd saying, 'Hey, let's dial it back.' The sad thing is, if you did have that person, I don't know that anyone would listen to them."
The polarization is bleeding into everyday Americans' personal lives.
Robert Major, a 51-year-old electrician and Republican from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, says he once moved because his landlord, a liberal, screamed at him for watching conservative news channels.
Meeka Grayer, a 38-year-old radio talk show host and Democrat from Omaha, Nebraska, lost friends over the divide. One conservative friend posted on Facebook about the migrant caravan heading toward the United States from Central America, parroting the president's vilification of the group. Grayer objected and was attacked for her comments, prompting her to block her friend.
Though on opposite sides politically, Grayer and Major agree: The political climate is toxic and tiresome, but they have little confidence it will change because it's too useful to politicians who want to stay in power.
"I think it's time for the little guy to take control, but will that happen?" says Randy Wick, a 68-year-old Republican in Bloomingdale, Illinois, who blames Republicans, Democrats and the media for the division. "It seems like a good ol' boys club up there in Washington. It's all about money."
Willer, the Stanford sociologist, says the absence of political leaders brave enough to try to steer the country onto a better path means it will be left up to voters to break the cycle. Until then, the divisions will only get deeper.
Some already casting votes for the Nov. 6 midterm election say they hope the system can self-correct. The future of the nation, the very concept of democracy, is at stake.
"America is resilient; we find a way even in our darkest days," 36-year-old Cordell Lawrence said as he voted last week in Louisville. Lawrence described himself only as a moderate, preferring not to make public what party he leans to because he worries that could hinder personal and professional relationships.
"Maybe we have to hit rock bottom before we find how to get back up," he said. "We're probably pretty close to rock bottom today. At least I hope we are."