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Buffalo supermarket shooting suspect pleads guilty to murder

He was charged with carrying out a racially motivated attack that killed 10 Black people at a Tops market

Attorney General Merrick Garland visits the Tops Friendly Markets grocery store in Buffalo on June 15. The store was the site of a May 14 mass shooting in which 10 Black people were killed. (Carolyn Thompson/AP)
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BUFFALO — The man charged with killing 10 Black people in a Buffalo grocery store in May pleaded guilty Monday to carrying out the massacre, which authorities said was fueled by bigoted ideology and racist hatred.

Authorities say Payton Gendron, a White man, was specifically seeking to kill Black people when he opened fire at the Tops Friendly Markets store on May 14. Investigators think the attacker, now 19, posted a rambling, racist screed online before the shooting declaring himself a white supremacist and pledging to kill Black people.

Appearing in a Buffalo courtroom just minutes away from the Tops store, the gunman pleaded guilty in state court to murder and domestic terrorism motivated by hate.

The carnage in Buffalo was a painful chapter in the country’s seemingly endless plague of mass shootings, attacks that have stricken community after community with grief and terror. Just days after the Buffalo massacre, a gunman in Uvalde, Tex., opened fire at an elementary school, killing 19 children and two adults. Weeks later, a gunman attacked an Independence Day parade in Highland Park, Ill., killing seven people and injuring dozens more.

This brutality has not abated. Last week, a Walmart supervisor in Chesapeake, Va., shot and killed six colleagues before fatally shooting himself. Days earlier, an attacker in Colorado Springs shot and killed five people inside an LGBTQ nightclub. And not long before that, police say a student at the University of Virginia shot and killed three of his schoolmates.

The victims of the Buffalo grocery store shooting

In Buffalo, Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn called the outcome of the criminal case “swift justice,” celebrating in particular that the guilty pleas mean survivors, victims’ relatives and the Buffalo community can avoid a lengthy criminal trial. Flynn said he hoped what happened Monday “will provide the families and the victims some measure of relief.”

Sentencing in the Buffalo case is scheduled Feb. 15, though Flynn said the outcome is essentially a foregone conclusion because the domestic terror charge carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole. New York state does not have the death penalty.

While the proceedings Monday signaled an ending for the state criminal case, the attacker still faces a federal hate crimes case. Federal officials can pursue a death sentence in that case, but it remains unclear whether they will.

The attack in Buffalo, which the shooter live-streamed online, targeted people at a grocery store in a largely Black neighborhood, setting off waves of fear in the city and nationwide. President Biden, visiting Buffalo after the shooting, called it “domestic terrorism” and a “murderous, racist rampage.” In a Washington Post-Ipsos poll after the shooting, three-quarters of Black Americans said they worried about themselves or their loved ones being physically attacked.

Gendron appeared Monday in a courtroom filled with relatives of the victims, local leaders, attorneys and reporters. Authorities recounted the massacre in grim detail, and prosecutor Noha Elnakib called the evidence against the attacker overwhelming.

The victims of the attack included Pearl Young, a 77-year-old grandmother who volunteered every weekend at her church’s food pantry, and Heyward Patterson, 67, who often drove members of his church to Tops, helped them load their groceries and then drove them home.

The gunman showed little emotion in court while admitting that he killed them and eight other people, as well as wounded three others. The attacker stood in the courtroom, swaying slightly, while he pleaded guilty again and again. Other than saying the words yes, no and guilty, he spoke only when describing his level of education. He said he graduated from high school and took some college courses.

Flynn, the district attorney, said during a news conference Monday that his office had been contacted by the attacker’s attorneys to indicate that the gunman intended to plead guilty.

What motivated that decision was “not articulated on the record,” Flynn said, “and I really am not at liberty to discuss that aspect of it,” though he suggested that the sheer amount of evidence in the case may have played a role.

Speaking briefly after the hearing, Brian Parker, an attorney for the gunman, depicted the guilty pleas as a denunciation of their client’s actions and ideology.

“It is our hope that a final resolution to the state charges will help in some small way to keep the focus on the needs of the victims and the community,” said Parker, who did not take questions.

Another mass killing rocks the nation: 'We aren't numb; we're traumatized'

Garnell Whitfield, a former Buffalo fire commissioner whose 86-year-old mother Ruth Whitfield was killed in the shooting, has traveled the country meeting with other people who lost loved ones to gun violence.

“My mother didn’t deserve this,” Whitfield said during a news conference after the hearing Monday. “None of these people deserve this. But, yet here we are, begging for those who are in power to do something.”

Whitfield, a cancer survivor, compared his experience fighting that disease with America’s struggle to confront white supremacy. The former fire chief tried holistic cures and other methods, he said, but when that did not work, he underwent major surgery.

“I’m here today because I decided to do something about it,” he said. “What is America going to do about the cancer of white supremacy? What is America going to do? We’ve been putting Band-Aids on it.”

Family members also spoke about the continuing toll for people who lived through the attack. Zeneta Everheart, whose son Zaire Goodman was shot but survived, said Monday that her son has been seeing a therapist ever since to help him deal with post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms that followed the rampage.

“He’s dealing with survivor’s guilt,” said Everheart, who is Black. Goodman is just 21, she said, “and this is a lot of weight on him.”

Everheart said she goes to the attacker’s court hearings because she feels the need to be in the same space as the person who tried to murder her son. When the shooter spoke on Monday, she said, his tone was “very nonchalant” and made her feel ill.

“It showed me that I was right in all the times that I said that this country has a problem,” she said. “This country is inherently violent. It is racist. And his voice showed that to me today, because he didn’t care.”

Rose Wysocki, produce manager at the Tops location where the shooting took place, attended the court hearing Monday morning wearing her work shirt and name tag because she was going to work at the store after the hearing. Wysocki said she was at the store the day of the shooting and was in court to show support for her slain co-workers. Wysocki, who is White, said she continues to have nightmares about that day.

“I want him to know that he didn’t totally destroy us,” Wysocki said. “I want him to know that we all think the same of him. Hate doesn’t even cover how we feel.”

Buffalo’s East Side was a food desert. The shooting made things worse.

After the attack, more details emerged suggesting that the gunman had extensively planned the shooting. The rambling 180-page screed posted online invoked the racist theory that White people are intentionally being replaced and detailed a plot to attack Black people in Buffalo, about 200 miles from Gendron’s home in Conklin, N.Y.

This rant was posted online, and a draft was found by law enforcement officials on the gunman’s computer, authorities said.

The Post also reviewed hundreds of pages of messages posted online by a writer identifying himself as Gendron. Those messages described a decision to target that specific Tops grocery store due to the size of the local Black population as well as plans to attack two other locations in Buffalo to “shoot all blacks,” the writer said.

During the attack, the gunman began shooting people in the parking lot and then went inside to kill more. The gunman shot one victim and, when the person was on the ground, fired into their body again to ensure they were dead, an FBI special agent wrote in a court filing.

The gunman then turned his rifle on a White employee of the grocery store who had been shot in the leg, the agent wrote. Instead of shooting this person, the agent wrote, the gunman said, “Sorry” and kept searching for Black people to kill.

The gunman was taken into custody after the shooting. His rifle, authorities said, was littered with writings that included racial slurs, the names of other mass shooters and the statement, “Here’s your reparations!” All told, the FBI special agent wrote, the gunman fired about 60 rounds during the massacre.

Garland weighs racial equity as he considers death penalty in Buffalo

The gunman still faces federal charges accusing him of hate-crimes and gun crimes. The Justice Department has not said whether it will seek the death penalty in that case.

Since Biden took office, the Justice Department has not sought any new death sentences, a spokeswoman said. The spokeswoman declined to comment on the guilty pleas entered Monday.

Attorney General Merrick Garland, who will decide whether the Justice Department pursues the death penalty, issued a moratorium on federal executions last year. The moratorium only prevents executions from being scheduled; it does not stop the Justice Department from seeking the death penalty in ongoing prosecutions.

During the Biden administration, the Justice Department has defended death sentences previously handed down, including in the case of the avowed white supremacist who killed nine Black parishioners in a Charleston, S.C., church in 2015 and the surviving Boston Marathon bomber. Both attacks occurred during the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president; that administration decided to seek death sentences in both cases.

Berman reported from Washington. David Nakamura contributed to this report.