Accused Buffalo gunman followed a long trail to terror, officials say

AP Photo/Matt Rourke
People embrace outside the scene of a shooting at a supermarket a day earlier, in Buffalo, N.Y., Sunday, May 15, 2022.

CONKLIN, N.Y. – By his own account, the suspected Buffalo supermarket gunman became a racist killer while bored online. According to a lengthy screed authorities believe Payton Gendron posted before allegedly killing 10 people on Saturday, the 18-year-old was drawn to hateful rhetoric from a mass murderer on the other side of the world.

As investigators unpack the disturbing details of Gendron’s alleged crimes, current and former law enforcement officials said he apparently hoped his shocking violence would draw attention from well beyond this small town in Upstate New York.

“He’s telling us he wants to feel important. He wants to be remembered. He wants to be relevant in life, but he won’t be. He’s not relevant,” said Katherine Schweit, a former federal agent who started the FBI’s active-shooter program.

At the end of his senior year, someone called the state police to report that Gendron had made alarming comments threatening to shoot up graduation-related events, according to officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing the ongoing investigation.

Gendron’s statements were enough of a concern to authorities on June 8, 2021, that they took him into custody and then to a nearby hospital for a mental health evaluation, officials said.

One person familiar with the investigation said the teen had been asked at school about his future plans, and replied “murder-suicide.” It was enough to raise concerns, this person said, but not enough to take further as an investigation.

The incident now stands out as a potential key in understanding his path from a seemingly quiet and unremarkable childhood to accused mass murderer.

Law enforcement officials on Sunday offered few details about the high school threat investigation, saying Gendron was held overnight for evaluation, and then released. It was unclear whether, following the incident, he received further treatment.

“From what I have, it was a generalized threat; not a specific threat directed at a specific place or person,” said Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia, who added that there was not anything explicitly racist about the alleged threat, and that it did not so far appear that authorities mishandled the situation. “The state police did their job to the fullest they could at that time,” he said.

In a rambling, 180-page declaration that authorities believe Gendron wrote and posted online, he proudly labels himself a white supremacist and his planned attack an act of terrorism, adding that he supports neo-Nazism and revels in antisemitism.

A long-winded love letter to racism and racist violence, the document describes months of planning leading up to the attack, including a lengthy discussion of weapons, what appears to be his legal purchase of a Bushmaster rifle months earlier, and lengthy recommendations on weaponry and body armor.

Investigators continue to examine the document, but they believe Gendron wrote it, according to people familiar with the investigation that includes local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. An initial review of Gendron’s weapon purchase did not reveal anything that appeared unlawful, these people said, though investigators continue to scrutinize other aspects of his life, including the high school incident a year earlier, to see if there was anything authorities missed that should have barred him from purchasing a weapon.

FBI agents have searched the suburban house here in Conklin where Gendron lived with his parents and two brothers, gathering evidence for two distinct but vital parts of the investigation.

First, agents and local police are assembling a detailed timeline of his moves leading up to the attack – everything he did in the days just before the shooting, to build what they hope is an unshakable case proving his guilt. Already facing a state murder charge, Gendron also is being investigated for possible federal crimes, and in similar cases in the past, federal prosecutors have sought the death penalty. In the lengthy written account authorities believe he wrote before the attack, Gendron allegedly claimed that he planned to plead guilty in the hopes of drawing more attention to his white supremacist cause.

Key to the investigation is understanding his online behavior, and any computer he used will be of particular interest to investigators, according to current and former law enforcement officials.

That information will feed the other important prong of the FBI’s investigation: understanding the long-simmering psychological impulses that allegedly drove Gendron to commit the most deadly mass shooting so far this year.

“The answers to the most important questions aren’t in Buffalo, they’re 200 miles away in Conklin,” said Peter Ahearn, former head of the FBI’s Buffalo field office. “The motivation is hate, but what drove him to this? What was his upbringing like, to be that horrible of an individual, to do this and kill 10 innocent people? They need to understand that. Right now this is a wide open wound. Those answers will help with understanding, but it will take time.”

On Sunday, residents in Conklin, a town whose welcome sign declares it “a great place to live and raise a family,” seemed at a complete loss to explain how the boy they knew as a quiet kid is now accused of committing such a hateful atrocity, allegedly firing dozens of lethal rifle rounds at senior citizens, grocery store workers and a security guard with a weapon that had a racial slur written on it.

“I’m heartbroken,” said Mary Cappello, who lives here. “I always think of it as safe and cozy and warm, and to hear something like this happened, it just blew me away.”

State police kept reporters away from the blue house where the Gendron family lives on a quiet cul-de-sac, with a basketball hoop in the front driveway and a pool in the backyard. A woman who answered a phone registered to Gendron’s mother declined to speak to a Washington Post reporter Saturday, saying she hadn’t heard anything yet and didn’t want to “speculate.”

The details about the suspect that have emerged so far fit with grim patterns seen in past mass killings.

Researchers and experts studying mass violence have found a series of common elements, many of which appear to have recurred in Buffalo. Active shooters are usually male, researchers have found, and were fueled by some kind of grievance.

Rather than snapping seemingly without any warning, most attackers often spent time plotting beforehand, the FBI found in a 2018 study examining active shooters. These attackers also tended to alarm people around them before opening fire, the FBI study found, and more than half had made clear in some fashion that they intended to commit violence.

The online screed investigators believe was posted by Gendron also fit another unnerving pattern, in which mass killers often research or draw inspiration from their predecessors.

The document posted online cites the names of several other convicted or accused mass killers, including the avowed white supremacist convicted of killing nine Black parishioners in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, and the man charged with killing 23 people at a Walmart in El Paso in 2019. Police in El Paso say that man confessed to the shooting and said he was targeting “Mexicans,” and officials believe he wrote an online statement ranting about a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

And in carrying out Saturday’s attack in Buffalo, the gunman made sure to leave as much of a record as possible. Besides the lengthy written record, authorities said he live-streamed the killing on social media, so that others could watch.