Ten people were gunned down at a Buffalo supermarket Saturday in a horrifying mass shooting that officials were quick to label as “pure evil” and racially motivated.
The shooting stunned a community basking in a warm May afternoon, with shoppers filling the Tops in a predominantly Black neighborhood at 1275 Jefferson Ave.
“It’s the weekend, so it was packed,” Shonnell Harris, an operation manager working at the Tops during the shooting, told The Buffalo News.
Harris said that when she heard gunshots, she ran frantically through the store, falling several times before exiting out the back. She saw the shooter, whom she described as a white man wearing camouflage.
“He looked like he was in the Army,” she said. She thought she heard 70 shots.
Of the 13 people shot, 11 were Black and two were white, Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said. Most of the victims’ identities weren’t released as of late Saturday night. However, sources told The News that one of the dead was Aaron Salter, a recently retired Buffalo police officer working as a security guard at the store, while another is Ruth Whitfield, the mother of former Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield.
The shooting is the worst in Buffalo history.
“We are hurting, and we are seething right now as a community,” Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said at a news conference following the shooting.
Katherine Crofton, a retired firefighter and medic, witnessed the shooting from her porch on Riley Street. She said she was playing with her dog and smoking a cigarette when she heard a shot.
“I didn’t see him at first, I turned around and I saw him shoot this woman,” Crofton said. “She was just going into the store. And then he shot another woman. She was putting groceries into her car. I got down because I did not know if he was going to shoot me.”
Four of those shot were store employees. The dead included the security guard, who confronted the gunman, Gramaglia reported. Gramaglia hailed Salter as a hero.
The three injured victims were taken to Erie County Medical Center. A hospital spokesman said one was released and the two others were in stable condition Saturday night.
As the shooter exited the Tops Market, Braedyn Kaphart and Shayne Hill came almost face to face with him as they pulled their car into a parking space in the Tops lot.
The shooter looked like he was preparing to kill himself, Kaphart said.
“He was standing there in his military gear with his weapon to his chin, looking like he was going to blow his head off,” Kaphart said. “We weren’t sure what was happening. As he continued to do that, he dropped to his knees still appearing as if he might shoot himself.”
Kaphart said she looked away momentarily as police yelled at them to get back in their car.
When Kaphart looked back, she said it appeared officers had tackled the man.
Crofton saw the emergency responders arrive, too.
“The guy walked out of the store, the cops were just screaming at him, and he just stood there. He just stood there. It was like he wanted them to shoot him,” Crofton said. The shooter began to remove his gear, Crofton continued, when another police car pulled up, officers got out and jumped on him
The accused gunman was arraigned Saturday evening before Buffalo City Court Judge Craig Hannah on a first-degree murder charge.
He was identified in court as Payton Gendron, 18, of Conklin in Broome County, near Binghamton.
The local head of the FBI, Stephen Belongia, said that agency is investigating this “both as a hate crime and racially motivated violent extremism.”
“It was,” Erie County Sheriff John Garcia said, “straight up, a racially motivated hate crime.”
Garcia added, “This person was pure evil.”
At least four bodies were found in the parking lot, a police official at the scene said. Inside the supermarket, several other victims were found, sources said, and some of the deceased appeared to be hiding near cash register lines.
“It’s like walking onto a horror movie, but everything is real. It is Armageddon-like,” a police source told The News. “It is so overwhelming.”
Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn said investigators have collected evidence showing “racial animosity” was behind the attack.
“A racially motivated hate crime is abhorrent to the very fabric of this nation,” President Biden said in a statement released late Saturday night. “Any act of domestic terrorism, including an act perpetrated in the name of a repugnant white nationalist ideology, is antithetical to everything we stand for in America. Hate must have no safe harbor.”
Photos from inside the courtroom show a man sitting in a white paper gown and wearing a white face mask.
The accused shooter, who turns 19 next month, has a minimal online presence under that name. He was a student at SUNY Broome Community College, but said he is no longer studying there. A college spokeswoman did not elaborate on when he attended the school or when and why he left.
“I have confirmed that we have a former student by that name. They are no longer enrolled,” Silvia C. Briga, director of marketing, communications and public information at SUNY Broome, said in an email.
A hate-filled, 180-page manifesto, purportedly written by the accused shooter, circulated on social media in the hours after the mass shooting. The Buffalo News could not immediately verify its authenticity.
Gov. Kathy Hochul, who flew from Albany to Buffalo Saturday evening, described the mass shooting as “an act of terrorism.”
“It strikes us in our very heart to know that such evil lurks out there,” she said in a press conference. “Yes, I’m here to console the families and the community that is feeling so much pain right now, but mark my words, we’ll be aggressive in our pursuit of anyone who subscribes to the ideals professed by other white supremacists.”
Hochul then took aim at social media sites that support those views.
“Those who provide these platforms,” she said, “have a moral, an ethical and I hope to have a legal responsibility to ensure that such hate can not populate these sites, because this is the result.”
Police sources reported the shooter was dressed in body armor, had a military grade helmet on his head, was armed with a high-powered rifle and live streamed video of the attack.
“It’s like a dream, but I know it’s not a dream,” said Harris, the Tops operation manager. GYC Ministries pastor Tim Newkirk, with his arm around Harris, his sister, said, “It’s something you hear about, but you never experience.”
“You see it on TV, I never thought I’d be one of them,” Harris said. Harris, whose daughter Denise also works at the supermarket, was found safe behind the building. “I just grabbed her, I hugged her.”
News staff reporters Aaron Besecker, Mark Sommer, Matthew Spina, Charlie Specht, Steve Watson, Harold McNeil, Jon Harris, Sandy Tan and Dale Anderson contributed to this report.