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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Buffalo shooting suspect is charged with federal hate crimes

Attorney General Merrick Garland, center, visits the memorial for victims of the May 14, 2022 mass shooting at a Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo, N.Y. on Wednesday, June 15, 2022.

By Jesse McKinley and Glenn Thrush

The suspect in the Buffalo, New York, massacre that left 10 Black residents dead was charged earlier this week with federal hate crimes and weapons violations, in a complaint that included new details about the depth of his racist hatred.

Although there is currently a moratorium on federal executions, some of the federal charges against the gunman could carry the death penalty if the Justice Department decided to seek it.

On Wednesday, Attorney General Merrick Garland did not rule out that possibility.

“The Justice Department has a series of procedures it follows,” he said during a news conference in Buffalo. He added that the families of victims and survivors of the shooting, some of whom he visited on his trip to the city, “would be consulted.”

Calling the massacre a “horrific attack” designed to instill terror and long-term trauma, Garland, and other federal officials at the news conference, outlined the suspect’s planning of the mass shooting, saying that the suspect had intended to kill as many Black people as possible.

“Hate brings immediate devastation,” Garland said. “And it inflicts lasting fear.”

The suspect, Payton Gendron, 18, is an avowed white supremacist. During the shooting, which was livestreamed, the suspect wore camouflage and body armor and carried a semi-automatic Bushmaster rifle, according to authorities. All told, 13 people were shot at Tops Friendly Market on the afternoon of May 14; three survived.

Before the attack, authorities said, the suspect had posted a rant on Discord, a chat application, outlining his belief in so-called replacement theory, a white supremacist ideology that posits a nefarious scheme to “replace” white people with people of color.

On Wednesday, Garland said the suspect believed in “the vile theory that only people like him belong in this country,” and noted the extent of the violence that day, which included some 60 shots fired inside the supermarket.

“No one in this country should have to live in fear that they will go to work or shop at the grocery store and will be attacked by someone who hates them because of the color of their skin,” Garland said. “No one in this country should have to bury a loved one because of such hate.”

In an affidavit accompanying the criminal complaint filed on Wednesday, an FBI agent, Christopher J. Dlugokinski, said the suspect’s motive was “to prevent Black people from replacing white people and eliminating the white race, and to inspire others to commit similar attacks.”

In the news conference, Garland also said that the accused gunman apologized to a white employee that he had shot, before continuing to shoot others inside the market.

State authorities have previously said that the suspect had carefully planned his massacre, traveling more than 200 miles from his home in Conklin, New York, after choosing the East Side neighborhood in Buffalo because of its large number of Black residents.

In addition to the online diatribe published before the attack, authorities also said that the suspect wrote a series of private posts on Discord about his plans, which he made public shortly before the shooting and which were rife with racist ramblings.

On the morning of the attack, the suspect left a note in his bedroom saying he “had to commit this attack” because he cares “for the future of the White race,” according to the federal complaint, which contained new details about the suspect’s state of mind.

On Wednesday, federal authorities also revealed more details about how the suspect had planned for the attack. The suspect had visited Tops on March 8, then “created two sketches of the interior layout” of the supermarket and counted the number of Black people inside and outside the store, including cashiers and two Black security guards.

A day before the attack, they said, the suspect returned and loitered around the store.

Finally, federal prosecutors said, he visited just hours before the shooting began and “observed a ‘healthy amount of old and young’ Black people in the store.”

The federal charges include 10 counts each of hate crimes and use of firearms to commit murder, one for each of the people killed in the attack. In addition, authorities charged the suspect with three counts of hate crime and three counts of gun charges associated with the three people who were injured but not killed in the rampage.

The hate crime charges carry the possibility of the death penalty, which would be determined by Garland after reviewing deliberations by a panel of Justice Department officials.

Garland, since taking office last year, has not authorized any local U.S. attorney to pursue the death penalty against a defendant convicted in an eligible case, the Justice Department said Wednesday.

In Buffalo, some residents were conflicted about whether Gendron should face such a sentence.

“If you take a life, then yours shouldn’t be spared,” said Dale McHerrin, 59, a former co-worker of Heyward Patterson, who was killed that day. “On the other hand, I am not in favor of taking anyone’s life.”

Zeneta Everhart, whose 21-year-old son, Zaire Goodman, was shot in the neck and leg but survived, was one of those who met with Garland and federal prosecutors on Wednesday. She said she believed “human life ought to be preserved.”

“I think the mental anguish of being alive, of waking up every day for the rest of your life thinking about what you did, I think that is worse,” said Everhart.

Garland’s visit came two weeks after the suspect’s indictment on 25 counts of murder and other state charges, including domestic terrorism motivated by hate — believed to be the first time that the 2020 law has been leveled against a defendant.

Gendron pleaded not guilty to those charges and is being held without bail.

The FBI is still investigating the case, including whether any other white supremacists or participants in online chats knew of Gendron’s plans or played a role in inciting him, officials said.

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