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10 killed in racially motivated shooting at Buffalo grocery store

Law enforcement and elected officials gathered for a news conference in Buffalo on May 14, detailing the events and possible motivations of the deadly shooting. (Video: The Washington Post)
10 min

This story has been updated.

BUFFALO — Ten people were killed during a mass shooting Saturday afternoon at a Buffalo grocery store in what law enforcement officials described as a racially motivated hate crime.

Law enforcement authorities said Payton Gendron, an 18-year-old White man, approached the store in a predominantly Black neighborhood and opened fire on shoppers and employees, shooting 13 people including a security guard.

The massacre ended when Gendron surrendered to police outside the store. Later Saturday, he was charged with first-degree murder and held without bail. He pleaded not guilty.

Stephen Belongia, the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Buffalo field office, said law enforcement officials were investigating the shooting as a hate crime and a case of racially motivated violent extremism. Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said 11 of the 13 people shot were Black.

Gramaglia added that the gunman, who was heavily armed and wearing tactical gear, used a camera to live-stream the attack and shot several victims in the parking lot before entering the store.

The grocery’s longtime security guard fired back, but the gunman’s body armor blocked the shot, and the guard was killed in the encounter, Gramaglia said. He called the security guard a “hero.” Four of those killed were store employees and six were customers, law enforcement officials said.

One of the customers was 86-year-old Ruth Whitfield, who had stopped at Tops after spending the day taking care of her husband at his nursing home.

“There’s very few days that she did not spend time with him, attending to him,” said her son, retired Buffalo fire commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield. “She was his angel.”

Now the family is rallying around his father to make sure he’s cared for. “Something she would be proud of us for,” Whitfield said. “So we’ve got a big task ahead of us.”

Erie County Sheriff John Garcia called the attack “pure evil.”

It is the deadliest mass shooting in the United States in 2022 and the latest among rampages in recent years by perpetrators driven by hate and racism.

Gendron grew up in Conklin, a New York town more than 200 miles from Buffalo near the city of Binghamton. The suspect was not known to law enforcement, said John Flynn, the Erie County district attorney. Flynn said there were pieces of evidence that indicate “racial animosity” on the part of the suspect, but he declined to elaborate.

Investigators are reviewing a screed that they suspect was posted by the alleged gunman describing his white-supremacist motivations and ideology. The 180-page document was uploaded to Google Drive and details the author’s radicalization on Internet forums, as well as a plan to target a predominantly Black neighborhood.

The rise of domestic extremism in America

The author calls himself a white supremacist, fascist and antisemite. The document is centered on a far-right conspiracy theory that baselessly posits that the White population in Western countries is being reduced — or “replaced” — by immigrants in a deliberate plot.

The author cites Brenton Tarrant, the gunman who killed 51 people in two New Zealand mosques, as an inspiration for the attack. The author also mentions Dylann Roof, who killed nine worshipers in an attack on a Black church in Charleston in 2015.

The scene of a deadly shooting in Buffalo

In a statement on Saturday night, President Biden said that “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.”

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown said it was “a day of great pain for our community.”

The Tops Friendly Markets store is in a lower-income area of Buffalo and opened more than a decade ago, residents said. It filled a major gap, becoming the only supermarket within walking distance for many living nearby. On weekends, locals said, it hums with customers, including the elderly.

Eyewitnesses described a scene of terror on Saturday. Grady Lewis was outside the store and said he saw a White man outfitted for war, wearing military-style fatigues and holding a firearm in his hands. He said he couldn’t believe what was unfolding before his eyes.

Lewis said the man opened fire, pointing the gun left and right as he indiscriminately shot people. Lewis heard more than two dozen shots as the man went inside the grocery store, he said.

A worker who identified himself as Will G. told the Buffalo News that he had walked into a cooler to stock milk just minutes before the shooting. As gunfire rang out, he joined others who hid in the cooler.

“I just heard shots. Shots and shots and shots,” he told the Buffalo News. “It sounded like things were falling over.”

He added: “I hid. I just hid. I wasn’t going to leave that room.”

Not long after the shooter entered the store, he walked outside and placed the gun under his chin as if he was going to pull the trigger, Lewis said. Surrounded by police, he instead dropped the gun, removed his bulletproof vest and knelt to the ground, Lewis said.

“It was unbelievable,” Lewis said. “I mean, you might get robbed out here, but people don’t really shoot people out here.”

Philip Washington works at a nearby barbershop and came outside when he heard gunshots. He said he saw the shooter surrender to police outside the store, and “it was bodies laying everywhere around him.” Washington said one of the women killed had saved his cousin’s life.

Daniel Love, 24, the owner of the barbershop, said that every day for about a week, the suspected shooter would sit outside Love’s store, seeming to use the WiFi.

Braedyn Kephart, 20, an Erie Community College student, said she and her boyfriend, Shayne Hill, also 20, pulled into the Tops parking lot to pick up an Instacart order on Saturday afternoon when they saw a young White man in full military garb standing outside the store, pointing an assault rifle at his chin.

“We looked over and saw him standing there with the gun to his chin, and I’m thinking, ‘Why does this kid have a gun?’ Then I heard screaming,” Kephart said. Police told the couple to stay in the car for their safety.

As Kephart and Hill watched from the car, they could see the suspect drop to his knees and surrender to police, who took him into custody. Other eyewitnesses said he was laughing while he was being arrested, she said.

“I’m pretty shaken up. My mind is blown at everything that happened,” she said.

Samantha Faught, a spokesperson for the live-streaming platform Twitch, said the gunman began filming and sharing the attack, but the company removed the stream two minutes after the violence started.

Saturday’s shooting has echoes of the March 2021 mass shooting in Boulder, Colo., where 10 people, including a police officer, were killed at a King Soopers grocery store.

Kathy Sautter, a spokeswoman for Tops Friendly Markets, said the company was “shocked and deeply saddened by this senseless act of violence.” She said Tops appreciated the quick response by law enforcement and was providing all available resources to assist in the investigation.

Following the attack, the New York Police Department said it deployed additional units to major houses of worship in communities of color in the city, including Black churches, “out of an abundance of caution,” said Brendan Ryan, a police spokesman.

Friends and acquaintances of the suspect were shocked by the news. One former classmate, who last texted with Gendron months ago and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he was quiet, smart and “always a little bit of an oddball, but never anything alarming or anything.”

Russell McNulty, a neighbor in Conklin, said he last saw Gendron at his high school graduation party a year ago. They smoked a cigarette outside together and talked about what the young man wanted for his future.

“Oh my God, we were at the graduation party,” McNulty gasped after he learned what happened. “He seemed like a normal guy.”

Last November, a teenager named Eddie had an unexpected visit from Gendron after he learned that Eddie had a property where they could do some recreational shooting. The two attended Susquehanna Valley High School together but weren’t close. (Eddie is being identified only by his first name due to privacy concerns.)

Now he wonders whether Gendron was practicing for the horror he allegedly unleashed six months later in Buffalo. “I’m just totally in shock,” Eddie said, speaking to a Post reporter with permission from his parents. “He was at my house.”

That day, Eddie, another teenager and Gendron went into the woods to shoot off rounds from a Remington rifle and an AR-15 military-style rifle, enjoying each other’s company in what felt like an ordinary outing.

Gendron gave no hint of the racist sentiments attributed to him, he said. Now, when Eddie reads the document Gendron is suspected to have written, he feels sick to his stomach. “It wasn’t like him, it was like a switch flipped or something,” he said.

In the streets around the supermarket, there was grief and rage and disbelief. “Everybody is feeling sad and angry about what happened today,” said Robert Nailor, 58, who has lived in the neighborhood his entire life. “It was a hate crime, and it lets us know how some people in the world still think today.”

Cedric Holloway, a retired Buffalo police officer, was mentoring a group of teenagers at a community center two blocks from the supermarket when he started receiving frantic text messages about the shooting. He quietly left the room where the kids were attending a workshop, made sure the doors were locked and then calmly explained to them why he was turning out the lights.

The high-schoolers began scouring social media, relaying to Holloway excerpts of the document allegedly written by the shooter. They also showed him a photo circulating on the Internet of the alleged gunman holding a military-style firearm with something written on the barrel: the n-word.

As Holloway let his mentees go home for the night, he checked in with each one. “They told me not to worry, ‘They’ve seen this stuff before,’” Holloway said. “How do you respond to that?”

Slater reported from Williamstown, Mass.; Barrett reported from Washington; and Hernández reported from San Antonio. Libby March in Buffalo, and Alice Crites, Razzan Nakhlawi, Marisa Iati, Meryl Kornfield, Timothy Bella and Annie Gowen contributed to this report .