BUFFALO — A day after one of the deadliest racist massacres in recent US history, law enforcement officials in New York descended on the accused shooter’s home and looked into his mental state , while Governor Kathy Hochul vowed to act against hate speech which she said has “spread like a virus”.
The suspect, 18-year-old Payton S. Gendron, shot dead 13 people Saturday afternoon at a Tops supermarket east of Buffalo, killing 10 people, officials said. Almost all of the victims were black.
Buffalo police officials confirmed on Sunday that Mr. Gendron was brought by state police to the southern part – along New York’s southern border with Pennsylvania – last June for a mental health evaluation. after making an unspecified threat to his high school.
The evaluation at a hospital lasted about a day and a half, according to Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia, but did not result in a longer detention. The threat was “widespread” and not racial in nature, he said.
“He was assessed and then he was released,” Gramaglia said, adding, “Nothing came up in state police intelligence, nothing came up in FBI intelligence.”
Police said Mr. Gendron had traveled to Buffalo the day before the shooting and scouted the Tops Market. “He was someone who had hatred in his heart, soul and mind,” Mr. Gramaglia said.
Mr. Gendron, who police say wore body armor and camouflage during his trip, allegedly posted a long screed riddled with racist writing and expressing his admiration for a white supremacist ideology known as replacement theory. .
Some of the 13 victims were identified on Sunday, including retired Buffalo police officer Aaron Salter Jr., 55, who worked at the grocery store as a security guard and was hailed a hero for confronting the shooter, and Ruth Whitfield, an 88-year-old grandmother of eight. Celestine Chaney, 65, also died, according to her son.
The shooter targeted the Tops because of its location in a predominantly black neighborhood, according to his writings and city officials. “This individual came here for the express purpose of taking as many black lives as possible,” said Mayor Byron Brown, a Democrat who is Buffalo’s first black mayor.
Four people were shot dead in the store’s parking lot and nine others inside, including Mr. Salter, who exchanged gunfire with the shooter, who was firing an assault weapon. The shooter, however, was wearing a heavy body armor and was not injured, according to Erie County executive Mark Poloncarz.
A bloodstain still smeared the asphalt in the parking lot on Sunday, as various state, federal and local officers worked the scene. The blocks surrounding the location were filled with elected officials and mourners from the neighborhood who sought answers about why the gunman had brought his hatred to their community.
“A lot of my peers, my friends, the cop, they were in there,” said Karen Martin, 64, who came to the store Sunday morning to pay her respects. “I just don’t believe he did that.”
The sense of grief was also mixed with outrage in many places as well, including among some local black religious leaders who pleaded with their white brethren in other parts of the state and country to do their part to stem a wave rising racism and white supremacy. .
“Don’t tell me you’re a friend of our community and you’re not talking about this today from the pulpit,” said Bishop Darius Pridgen of True Bethel Baptist Church in Buffalo, adding, “If you don’t support these holy offices and recognize that there are still people who hate black people, you can go to hell with the shooter for all i want. Because at the end of the day, if you’re shut up right now, you’re not a friend of mine.
Saturday’s attack was the deadliest mass shooting in the United States this year, joining a list of other racist massacres in recent years, including the murder of nine black parishioners at a church in Charleston, SC, in 2015 ; a 2018 anti-Semitic ransack at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 people dead; and an attack at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019, where the accused man expressed his hatred of Latinos and killed more than 20 people.
Extremists motivated by racial and ethnic hatred are considered the most dangerous threat among domestic terrorists. After a series of horrific shootings targeting people of color and Jews in 2019, the FBI has raised the threat to the highest level, meaning officers must prioritize developing confidential informants and take other action to counter the violence.
Law enforcement officials said Mr. Gendron, who was charged with first-degree murder and pleaded not guilty Saturday night, traveled halfway across the state to commit his crime.
On Sunday morning, FBI agents and members of other law enforcement gathered outside his home in Conklin, NY, a hilly suburban town in the southern part of Broome County, about 200 miles from Buffalo.
Neighbors recalled seeing Mr. Gendron playing basketball in the driveway with his two brothers, and some even attended his high school graduation party in the backyard last year, where they said that there was no indication that anything was ever wrong.
Others, however, said there were signs of rebellion and odd behavior, including a moment in 2020 when, after pandemic restrictions were lifted, he wore a full hazmat suit to class.
“He wore the whole costume: boots, gloves, everything,” said Nathan Twitchell, 19, a former classmate.
Kolton Gardner, 18, of Conklin, who attended middle school and high school with Mr Gendron, described him as “definitely a bit of an outcast”.
“He just wasn’t that social,” Mr. Gardner said. “I knew he had an interest in firearms, but where we grew up that wasn’t uncommon. It’s a bit like what happens in rural New York, people like guns.
Robert Donald, the owner of Vintage Firearms in Endicott, NY, said Sunday he recently sold a Bushmaster assault weapon to Mr. Gendron.
” I can not believe it. I don’t understand why an 18-year-old would even do that,” said Mr Donald, 75, who mainly sells collectible firearms. “I know I didn’t do anything wrong, but I feel bad about it.”
Mr. Gendron’s writings were littered with racist and anti-immigrant views that asserted that white Americans were at risk of being replaced by people of color, a once fringe idea that motivated gunmen in several other mass shootings and was best circulated by some prominent conservative commentators.
At a noon news conference on Sunday, Mr. Gramaglia, the police commissioner, said state and federal authorities had sought warrants for information on Mr. Gendron’s digital activities. They continued access to his computers and phones, as well as searches of his home and vehicle. He said authorities believe he acted alone.
Mr. Gendron has been placed on suicide watch and separated from the general population at the Erie County Jail, said John Garcia, the Erie County Sheriff, who declined to say the suspect’s name – himself referring to him by his inmate ID number – and called his actions “absolute evil.”
Mr. Gendron surrendered after putting his gun to his chin, said Mr. Gramaglia, who praised his officers for their quick reaction to the fire. Yet some members of the community have also questioned how Mr. Gendron – who authorities say had two other guns in the car he drove to the massacre – had not been shot by police during the his attack, which they believe would have happened if he had been black.
On Sunday, however, Mr. Gramaglia refuted that suggestion, saying his officers were always working to defuse violent situations. “We’re not looking to shoot anyone,” he said, noting that Mr. Gendron had pointed the gun at himself, not the police.
Mr. Gendron broadcast his attack live, police said, capturing footage of the mayhem he caused with a camera attached to his helmet. The video was streamed on Twitch, an Amazon-owned live streaming site that is popular with gamers, although the site took the channel offline. Still, video and screenshots of the show were circulating online.
Video of the Buffalo shooting is circulating online. A copy has over 2 million views. Someone linked to it 10 hours ago on Facebook; it now has 500 comments, 46,000 shares and is still live. The original Twitch stream had 22 viewers. The video never goes away.
— Drew Harwell (@drewharwell) May 15, 2022
During a morning appearance at True Bethel Church, Ms Hochul, a first-term Democrat from Buffalo, said she was angry at the violence that rocked her hometown, calling the shooter a ‘coward’ . But she also expressed deep frustration with “social media platforms that allow this hatred to ferment and spread like a virus”.
When asked how she plans to deal with such hate speech online, without infringing on First Amendment rights, Ms. Hochul noted that “hate speech is not protected” and said that she would soon be calling meetings with social media companies.
“I assure you when I get back to Albany their phones will ring,” she said.
Along with other Buffalo residents, Ms. Hochul stressed that she wanted the city to be known as a turning point in the nation’s string of gun tragedies.
“I want them to talk about Buffalo as the last place this happened,” she said.
Christine Chung, Ali Watkins, Emma Bubola Chelsia Rose Marcius and Grace Ashford contributed report.