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A barrage of ‘never-ending gunshots’: Inside the Buffalo massacre

The moon rises behind the Tops Friendly Markets store on Jefferson Avenue in Buffalo on May 15, a day after a gunman killed 10 people and wounded three others at the grocery store. (Matt Burkhartt for The Washington Post)
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BUFFALO — Three blocks west of the expressway that half a century ago ripped a gash in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Buffalo, Daniel Love was having a smoke outside his barber shop across from the Tops Friendly Markets store. Andre Mackniel was inside the supermarket, on a mission to get a cake to celebrate his son’s third birthday.

Jerome Bridges was in Aisle 14, adding price tags to items, three-packs of baby pacifiers for $7.49 each. Ruth Whitfield, who was 86, had been visiting her husband in a nursing home and stopped at Tops to grab something to eat, her son said.

Casual shoppers passed in and out of the market on a sultry spring Saturday afternoon that felt like the first glimmering of summer. Jefferson Avenue was not too busy, masks against the coronavirus seemed like a thing of the past to most people, and many shoppers nodded at familiar faces.

In this mostly Black section of the city, in a neighborhood of century-old houses, some sagging, some kept sturdy and freshly painted, a White man like Payton Gendron — 18, scraggly, glued to his phone — could look out of place, enough so that Love, the barber, remembered seeing him the day before, sitting for hours on the curb across from the supermarket.

The 18-year-old, who wore a hoodie, shorts and a black T-shirt with the word “genius” on the front, was probably just using the supermarket’s public WiFi, Love figured.

The barber, who is Black, offered him a chair.

The teen replied: “No, I’m good,” Love recalled.

Grady Lewis, a 50-year-old man who collects bottles and cans in the neighborhood, said the teen told him at about 5 p.m. Friday that he planned to camp out somewhere nearby for the night.

The teen stayed on the curb until past 7 p.m., when Love shuttered his shop for the evening, leaving only his dog, Buzz Buzz, inside.

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The alleged shooter knew nothing of East Buffalo, but the place he focused on — the only supermarket in the neighborhood, the only pharmacy, the place where many people pay their utility bills — was a people magnet, a godsend, some residents said, recalling their years-long campaign to persuade a grocery chain to invest in a low-income area where the main shopping drag is dotted with empty lots and vacant buildings.

As it turned out, Gendron had been outside that supermarket before, multiple times, according to a nearly 600-page online diary by a writer who identified himself as Gendron — a meticulously detailed, wildly rambling account of six months of obsessive planning; angry, unhinged rants; and anguished descriptions of his own mental disarray. The teen from a rural town 200 miles away kept the diary to document his preparations to drive to the Tops in a neighborhood he had selected for its dense population of Black people, “enter with Bushmaster XM-15 and shoot all blacks,” making sure to “livestream it on Twitch.”

Saturday’s massacre left 13 people shot, 11 of them Black. The shooter killed 10 people. Police captured Gendron at the site, and prosecutors charged him with first-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty.

Before 2:30 p.m. on Saturday, before the pop-pop-pop-pop-pop that Bridges first thought must be fireworks and that all too many people on the block knew to be automatic gunfire, the teenager charged with the shootings wrote that he had recently been tossed out of community college for failing to show up to classes, and described how he spent his days assembling his arsenal, plotting his attack, carefully counting the calories he consumed, and savoring hundreds of memes and pseudoscientific data that bolstered his belief that Jews, Blacks and the very rich were to blame for a decline of the White race that he concluded would end in “mass genocide of white people.”

“Attacking in a high-black density area with high density person count will have the greatest chance of success,” Gendron wrote in December.

He was, he wrote, deeply alone, largely sleepless, often suicidal, occasionally aware of his mental decline. “I am,” he wrote in February, “a radical, extremist, racist, and after the attack a terrorist.”

In January, he bought an armored vest. In February, he settled on Tops, having searched online and found that the 14208 Zip code had a striking concentration of Black residents — 72.5 percent, according to the 2020 census.

“Damn that is looking good,” he wrote on Feb. 17.

On March 8, after noting that “suicide seems very tempting right now,” Gendron wrote that he drove to Buffalo, “went inside Top’s,” drew a map of the store, and “I noted there were 45 blacks inside, 8 white inside, and 10 blacks on the outside of the store.”

As Gendron was leaving the store, he wrote, a “black armed security guard came up to me and said ‘I’ve seen you go in and out … What are you doing?’ And I said I was collecting consensus data, he said if I talked to the manager about it and I said no, and then he said I have to talk to him first.”

“I said bye and thanks and walked back to my car. In hindsight that was a close call,” he wrote.

***

It was 2:30 p.m. when everyone heard the pops.

Outside the store, Gregory Elmore was walking up Jefferson Avenue when a woman he passed asked, “Who’s shooting off fireworks?”

“That’s not fireworks, that’s an automatic rifle,” Elmore said.

“How do you know?”

“Sound,” Elmore replied. “I know a rifle when I hear one.”

Suddenly, a friend of Elmore’s who was standing on the corner called out, “Come here, come here, come here, call the police.”

“For what?” Elmore said.

“Somebody got shot at Tops,” the friend said.

Julie Harwell was at the store to pick up some hamburgers and hot dogs for her birthday barbecue; she was turning 33 on Sunday. Her partner, Lamont Thomas, and 8-year-old daughter, Londin Thomas, had sneaked away across the store to buy mix for a birthday cake.

Her daughter selected a strawberry cake with vanilla icing.

Then, the percussive, piercing sounds bounced off the walls of the grocery store, making it sound like shots were coming from everywhere. Products fell off shelves. Shoppers and store clerks tripped over themselves trying to escape.

“Something told me to get up and run,” Harwell said.

Bridges, the Tops worker, had clocked in at 10 a.m., as usual. He had a small pile of price tags in his hand, and he was marking products when he heard the first four pops, coming from outside. “I thought maybe somebody had a car that was out here popping fireworks,” said Bridges, 45.

But the next pops came from inside the store. Must be a robbery, Harwell thought. Gun violence in this part of East Buffalo is not unusual, residents said, and many people came together regularly to push back against the violence. But gunfire remained all too common, and now, Harwell shouted out for her daughter and partner.

“By the time I called their names, I heard more shots,” she said.

She dropped to the floor and tried to crawl on her stomach to someplace safe.

At the back of the store, Thomas, her 33-year-old partner, couldn’t see what was going on but “just heard everything, just never-ending gunshots,” he said. He and his daughter “hid in the back, in the milk freezer” for what seemed like “forever. Way longer than it was supposed to.”

Harwell, meanwhile, ran through the aisles in search of sanctuary. The gunman was moving through the store, apparently searching for people to kill, she said.

Then, suddenly, there he was, the shooter, an arm’s length behind her, as she and another shopper tried to escape. The other shopper lunged at the gunman, Harwell said, and he shot her dead.

That shooting allowed Harwell a moment to rush to the back of the store and hide.

“If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be alive,” Harwell said. “She lunged at him, and that’s why she’s dead. I don’t even know her name. I want to tell her family thank you.”

The Tops security guard on duty when the shooter entered the store, Aaron Salter Jr., tried to halt the gunman’s progress, firing his handgun several times. But the bullets met the shooter’s bulletproof vest and failed to fell him, according to Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia, who hailed Salter, a retired Buffalo police officer, as “a hero in our eyes.”

Sisters Joann Daniels and Celestine Chaney had left Daniels’s nearby home to stop into Tops for ingredients to make a shrimp dinner and homemade strawberry shortcake.

As shots rang out, Daniels and Chaney headed toward a freezer to escape the bullets. Chaney fell as they were running, according to Wayne Jones, Chaney’s son.

When Daniels reached “the freezer and turned around, my mom wasn’t with her,” Jones said.

Bridges, in Aisle 14, heard people screaming and saw some running. “l looked to see what the hell was going on,” he said. “I peeked around the corner. You could hear bullets hitting” the shelves all around the front of the store.

A man sprinted past Bridges and said, “That’s somebody shooting.” Bridges grabbed the people closest to him — the store’s produce manager, the night operations manager, and five or six customers — and sprinted with them to the back. On the way, he saw bullets riddle the dairy cooler and meat station.

The shooter was nearby, Bridges knew: “He had to be close to me because the lady in the pharmacy got grazed. And when she got grazed, that means by the time I was going through the damn double doors, he was coming towards the damn back. You could hear how close he was because you could literally hear the sound of bullets hitting stuff.”

Bridges ushered the others into a conference room. “I wanted to make sure those people stayed safe,” he said, “so I barricaded that door with the heaviest thing in there, which was that table, and locked it.”

Keyshanti Atkinson, a 19-year-old cashier who started at Tops three months ago, was working an extra shift as a favor for a co-worker, 12:30 to 7 p.m. A few minutes into her shift at register No. 2, she said, she felt something ominous. Her boyfriend and their 10-month-old son planned to visit her later that afternoon, but suddenly, she didn’t want them to come.

When the shooting started, Atkinson’s closest exit was the main entrance, but the shooter stood between her and the doors, so she dashed down an aisle and ended up in the conference room with Bridges and the others.

“We were falling all over each other,” she said. “The gunshots sounded like they were getting closer and closer. We were all crying.”

Bridges and the others huddled inside the conference room for what felt like forever, until they heard knocking at the door. One of Bridges’s fellow employees identified himself, and when Bridges opened up, police officers were there and directed everyone out the store’s rear door.

“And that was the end of it,” Bridges said, except that it was no such thing.

***

For 10 families, this was the beginning — of an unbearable pain, an everlasting emptiness.

Frederick Morrison, 49, was outside his Buffalo home enjoying his Saturday when people started talking about a shooting at Tops — the grocery where his older brother, Margus D. Morrison, 52, did his regular shopping.

When Frederick learned that Margus had been killed, “I broke down,” he said.

Margus was a father, a school bus aide, a fun guy who liked to joke around. The brothers didn’t talk much about racism, Frederick said.

“We just know it’s there,” he said.

Jones waited in the Tops lot after the shootings with his aunt and cousin while the store was evacuated, still hoping to find Chaney, his mom. Nearby stood other relatives and friends of those who went shopping Saturday and didn’t come home.

Katherine “Kat” Massey, 72, a longtime civil rights activist, planned to be picked up by her brother when she finished shopping at Tops, according to her sister, Barbara Massey. As the afternoon wore on, Barbara stood in the parking lot, dialing and redialing anyone who might know where her sister could be. No one would have a good answer.

Pearl Young, 77, had gone out to breakfast Saturday, then over to Tops to shop. Her son Damon, 48, planned to fetch her, and the two had been communicating back and forth. Then she stopped responding. Suddenly, Damon’s phone began buzzing with news alerts about the chaos at Tops.

“She wasn’t answering, wasn’t calling back,” he said. “They said it was some people wounded as well, so I was kind of hoping for that.”

At a nearby school, where detectives shared updates with distraught families, Damon learned that his mother had been shot and killed. He could think only of getting out of the building and letting his sister know what happened. (A detective would later tell him the details he felt compelled to know. His mother was shot in the head, the detective said. “He did tell me that even though I think I want to go to the morgue, he doesn’t recommend that for me,” Damon said. “I’m taking his word for that.”)

He texted his sister, who called him, hysterical. “I got in my car and did my crying on my way to my sister’s house,” Damon said.

Back at the Tops lot, Jones stared at his mother’s empty car.

After an hour with no news, “I couldn’t really take any more of it,” Jones said. He told his aunt and cousin he was going home to “wait and pray,” hoping that maybe his mother had gone to the hospital.

Then his daughter called, crying hysterically.

The daughter said, “This girl just messaged me on Facebook, and she wanted to know, ‘Is this Grandma?’”

She texted her father the photo.

“It was my mom, laying on her back,” Jones said. “I guess they must’ve took the picture off the live stream because the barrel of his gun was still in the picture. Like he was standing over her.”

Later, he saw the full video of the live stream, the ghastly shooter’s-view chronicle of the murders that was being forwarded around the world.

“It was everywhere,” he said. “He shot her once. Then he ran out of bullets, he stepped back, got another magazine, loaded it and shot her again.”

Saturday night at about 9:30, police would arrive at Chaney’s home to formally inform her fiance that Chaney, 65 and retired from work at suit manufacturing and baseball cap companies, had been killed, Jones said. By then, the family already knew.

“My kids all seen the video,” Jones said. “They’re all traumatized by seeing their grandmother.”

Andre Mackniel, who had gone into Tops in search of the birthday cake for his young son, never made it out. Tracey Maciulewicz, who wrote on Facebook that she was Mackniel’s fiance, said that Saturday was her son’s birthday.

“Today my baby was born but today my soul mate was taken,” she wrote. “How do I tell my son his daddy’s not coming home? How do I as a mother make it ok? Someone please tell me because I really don’t know.” Maciulewicz did not respond to requests for comment.

Jahon Smith, Mackniel’s cousin, said in an email that Mackniel’s brother had recently died after a brief illness. “This is a very hard time for the family,” said Smith. “I hope justice is served.”

Outside the supermarket, Elmore, the passerby who had figured right away that the pops were gunfire, was telling a friend what had happened when he saw Gendron — “in full army gear,” wearing a vest — on the parking lot pavement, on his knees, “with the rifle to his throat. And I thought he was about to kill himself.”

“The police came and as soon as the police came, he took off all of his army gear, threw the gun down, and laid down and got arrested,” Elmore said.

Just up Jefferson Avenue, at Love’s barber shop, the owner was outside smoking when he heard the first shot. He hurried back inside, figuring this was one more neighborhood shooting and would end quickly. But it didn’t. The shots kept coming, too many to count, Love said. Finally, when the firing ceased, Love stepped outside and recognized the 18-year-old who’d sat on his curb the previous evening, now dressed in camouflage fatigues and body armor, being loaded into a police vehicle.

Love told his colleague: “He must have spared me. I had just offered him a chair the day before.”

Another of Love’s co-workers, Phillip Washington, was relieved to see his cousin emerge from Tops but was shaken by the sight of bodies lying in the parking lot. If that wasn’t traumatic enough, Washington soon also saw the pictures online, on Twitch, of the shooter firing a bullet into a woman’s head, of the N-word inscribed on the shooter’s weapon.

Washington’s cousin told him that she had heard the shooter say, as he emerged from the store: “I did what I came to do.”

Gendron wrote repeatedly that he planned to die in the attack. The shootings, he wrote many times, would somehow be worse for him than for his victims because he would die a horrible death while they perished quickly. He told himself that his death would be worthwhile because he would have fulfilled his “duty” to his race as a “terrorist” and “White supremacist” — a set of beliefs he said he adopted after “extreme boredom” led him to spend countless hours, starting shortly after the pandemic began, reading far-right message boards on 4chan and other online forums.

Police said Monday that the shooter had planned other attacks, and Gendron detailed several of those in his online diary.

Inside the store, after Gendron was taken into custody, there was only silence, broken by bursts of sound from police radios and officers calling out to survivors in their hiding places.

Cops with guns drawn shouted at the people in the conference room to sprint out the store’s rear exit. When Atkinson, the cashier, arrived home, she scooped up her son, nearly fell onto her couch and held him close. “I told my boyfriend,” she said: “'I don’t want to talk about it right now. I just want to hold my son.'”

Buffalo survivor describes terror: ‘Something told me to get up and run’

At Tops, Lamont Thomas and daughter Londin were still in the dairy section, hiding in the milk coolers until police evacuated them to the store’s south side almost 20 minutes after the shooting.

Harwell, Londin’s mother, was clear across the market, evacuated by police to Tops’ north side, and had no idea where her family was.

It took 10 more excruciating minutes before they were reunited. They walked home, a few blocks away.

“I just cried the rest of the day,” Harwell said. Their daughter handled the aftermath better than either parent, they said.

“She’s been talking to me, keeping me in good spirits,” Harwell said.

“I wasn’t that scared,” said Londin, wearing an ice-pop-print dress and standing beside her mother. “I was just scared for my mom.”

***

On Sunday morning, Bridges returned to the scene, where he met a handful of other Tops workers. He stared at his workplace, now roped off with yellow caution tape, police officers and FBI agents swarming the big parking lot.

He pulled a stack of price tags out of his pocket, the ones he was stamping onto products when the shooting started. “I won’t set foot back in that store again until my mind is straight,” he said. “And right now, it’s all over the place. All I need to do is calm my mind and I’ll be all right.” He said he plans to get counseling.

On the day after, Bridges thought about all the people who were calling him a hero for leading others to safety. “They can call me whatever they want to,” he said. “I did what I had to do.”

There were heroes and there were people who were grocery shopping and now are dead, because they were Black and a shooter hated them for the color of their skin.

“This is not isolated in our community,” Timothy Brown, senior pastor at Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Niagara Falls, told the crowd at a prayer vigil the day after the killings. “It’s been happening for over 400 years.”

There were angry voices, people who sought retribution for the killings. “I had young men, 20 of them over here saying, ‘I want to burn down this Tops,’ and I have to go to them and say, ‘Why?’” said Murray Holman, who leads the Buffalo Peacemakers, a neighborhood safety group. “They say: ‘Something happened that was horrific. We don’t want that. We don’t want that reminder.’

“And I say, ‘Well, that's not the answer. We need it. Let's just work on it.’”

But were there answers?

The family of Roberta Drury, 32, who was killed in the shootings, put out a statement, remembering how she cared for her brother, who is recovering from cancer, and listing the names of her parents and her five siblings, and then they said this:

“Our family is extra saddened that in the 10 years since Sandy Hook, nothing has changed with gun violence.”

Deborah Patterson grew up “pretty much sheltered from” the racism of daily life, she said. Now, after her cousin Heyward Patterson was killed by the gunman at Tops, she’s thinking about her daily experience of race in a different way.

“It’s something that was pretty much new to me as a grown woman,” she said. “The locking of people’s doors — you can be getting out of your car going to Walmart, and I guess they’re preparing to get out of their vehicle and they see you coming and they wait. Or the clenching of the purses. Just the way you’re looked at.”

Her cousin, 67, known to the family as Boy Tenny, was a regular at Tops, often driving members of his church to the store, helping them load their groceries into his car and then taking them home. “That’s what he did all the time,” Deborah Patterson said. “That’s what he loved to do.”

And now he’s gone, at the hand of someone who hated him and didn’t know him. “I just don’t understand how at the age of 18 — how did he get so much hate in such a short period of life?” Deborah Patterson wondered. “That 18-year-old child, if he was Black, would not have survived. I mean, just to be honest, the police wouldn’t have handled it that way. It was different, very different.”

For the surviving families, there were more questions than answers. For many who live in the shadow of an expressway that cut a Black neighborhood apart — as happened in so many American cities in the middle of the last century: the Cross Bronx Expressway in New York, I-95 in Miami, the Southeast-Southwest Expressway in Washington — this was one more assault on them simply for being born Black.

They met this one as they had so many before, with pain and anguish, courage and conviction.

Rinniey Baker, 57, a Tops worker for 21 years, left the store half an hour before the attack, chatted with a co-worker in the parking lot for a bit and finally went on her way a few minutes before the killings. On Sunday she was back, standing with colleagues and promising, amid people on megaphones preaching the dangers of racism, amid makeshift memorials overflowing with flowers, that she would return to work, no question.

“When they open up,” she said, “I’m walking back in the store because God did not give me a spirit of fear, but a sound mind.” The gunman “is not going to ruin my love for my community. I’m here for the long haul.”

Aidan Joly in Buffalo and Natalie Compton, Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, Jasmine Hilton, Maria Paul and Brittany Shammas in Washington contributed to this report.

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