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Ten people were killed and three others were injured – two seriously – outside and inside a Tops supermarket on Jefferson Avenue on Saturday afternoon in what law enforcement officials described as a racially motivated hate crime.
“It’s like stepping into a horror movie, but it’s all real. It’s like Armageddon,” the police official said at the scene. “It’s so overwhelming.”
Of the 13 victims, 11 were black. Police and prosecutors said the shooting was racially motivated.
“It was,” said Erie County Sheriff John Garcia, “directly, a racially motivated hate crime.”
Four Tops employees were among those killed, including a recently retired Buffalo police officer who worked security at the store. The Buffalo News is withholding the retired officer’s identity because it could not be determined whether his family had been notified.
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The shooter, Payton Gendron, 18, of Conklin, Broome County, was arraigned Saturday night before Buffalo City Court Judge Craig Hannah on charges of first-degree murder.
The shooter was dressed in a bulletproof vest and armed with a high-powered rifle, police sources said.
No less than five bodies were found in the parking lot, said the police chief on site.
“Bullets and blood are everywhere,” the source said.
Shonnell Harris, operations manager at Tops, said he heard gunshots and ran frantically through the store, falling several times before exiting out the back. She saw the shooter, whom she described as a white man in camouflage. “He looked like he was in the army.” Harris thought he heard 70 gunshots.
The shooter had a camera and police are investigating whether he was broadcast live from the scene, the official said.
The shooter was taken into custody and placed in a police vehicle at the scene, according to both sources.
The shooter was dressed in a bulletproof vest and wore a military-grade helmet on his head.
It is unclear whether he offered a reason for the massacre.
Video posted to Twitter showed two Buffalo police officers with a man who appears to be in custody just outside the Tops store. The man is a white male in camouflage pants, with what appears to be a mask over his mouth. The News was unable to confirm that the person in custody in the video was the shooter.
Immediately after the shooting, Braedyn Kaphart and Shayne Hill said they came almost face to face with the shooter as they turned their Equinox into a parking space in the Tops parking lot.
Kaphart described him as a man in his late teens or early twenties with dirty blond hair.
“He was standing there in his military gear with his gun to his chin looking like he was going to blow his head off,” Kaphart said. “We weren’t sure what was going on. As he continued to do this, he fell to his knees, always looking like he was ready to shoot himself.”
Kaphart said she then looked away.
“I turned my head and backed off as the police told us to get back in our cars,” she said.
When Kaphart looked back, she said it looked like officers had accosted and apprehended the man. They saw him being put in a police vehicle and taken away.
She shuddered to think of what might have happened if they had arrived at Tops a little earlier.
“A few more minutes and, God forbid, I don’t even want to think about what would have happened,” Kaphart said.
Inside the supermarket, several other victims were found, the two sources said, and some of the deceased appeared to be hiding near the cash register lines.
Adding to the horror, one of the sources said, family members arrived after news of the shooting spread through the community.
Others at the scene began streaming the shooting on Facebook Live.
Will G., a frozen dairy worker at Tops on Jefferson, said he entered the cooler to store milk about three minutes before the shooting. “I just heard gunshots. Gunshots and gunshots,” he said. “It looked like things were falling apart.”
The worker hid in the cooler and other people joined him, he said. “I hid. I just hid. I wasn’t going to leave this room.”
Harris described Tops’ lively scene. “It was full. It’s the weekend, so it was packed.”
“It’s like a dream, but I know it’s not a dream,” said Harris, Tops’ chief operating officer. GYC Ministries pastor Tim Newkirk, with his arm around his sister Harris, said, “It’s something you hear about but never experience.”
“You see it on TV, I never thought I would be one of them,” Harris said. Harris, whose daughter Denise also works at the Tops, was found safe behind the supermarket. “I just grabbed her, hugged her.”
Barbara Massey was frantically looking for her sister Katherine outside the Tops. She said her sister was out shopping at the time of the shooting and the two were unable to get in touch despite multiple phone calls and inquiries to police. Massey’s brother had dropped Katherine off for some routine groceries.
“She was supposed to be waiting outside the store for her brother to pick her up again,” Massey said.
Katherine Crofton, a retired firefighter and doctor, 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 gunshot.
“I didn’t see him at first, I turned around and saw him shooting this woman,” Crofton said. “She had just walked into the store. And then he shot another woman. She was putting groceries in her car. I got off because I didn’t know if he was going to shoot me.”
Crofton also saw rescuers arrive.
“The guy came out of the store, the cops were yelling at him, and he just stood there. He 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 cruiser pulled up, officers got out and jumped on the shooter.
Veronica Hemphill-Nichols said she was heading to the Tops for a loaf of bread and saw two bodies in the parking lot.
“When I saw these bodies, I just broke down. I’m angry and trying to shut myself down,” she said.
Hemphill-Nichols also said he saw people rushing out of the store and saw a woman frantically asking, “Where’s my daughter?”
Johnnie Emmons was inside her house, about five doors down from the Tops in Landon Street, when she said she heard bursts of gunfire. First came a flurry of about 20 rounds, then, after a brief pause, about 20 more rounds.
A large police presence closed off the area north of Jefferson Avenue to Northampton Street. Tops Markets is at the intersection of Jefferson Avenue and Riley Street, about two blocks north of Jefferson and Northampton.
Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz tweeted at 2:49 p.m. that he was aware of an “active multiple-shot event” that occurred at Tops Markets at 1275 Jefferson Ave. He urged the public to avoid the area.
Ben Tsujimoto can be reached at [email protected], (716) 849-6927 or on Twitter at @Tsuj10.