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People who knew Buffalo shooting suspect re-examine every interaction with him

Some of those who knew or encountered the suspect recently were owners of pawn shops and stores that sold coins and guns.
Image: Payton Gendron's home in Conklin, N.Y., on May 16, 2022.
Payton Gendron's home in Conklin, N.Y., on Monday. Michael Hill / AP

CONKLIN, N.Y. — The man suspected of killing 10 people after opening fire in a Buffalo grocery store was a frequent visitor of several firearm businesses in New York’s southern tier, driving back and forth between stores hunting for a deal on guns and collector's coins, according to owners of the businesses he visited. 

At one of those stores, just one month ago, Payton Gendron, 18, asked a business owner to show him guns, which he carefully examined but then put back because of the cost, the owner said.

“He always told me my prices were too high,” said the business owner, who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear that his business would be hurt. “And that he can go to any of the other places for a better price.”

The owner said he sold ammunition and collector’s coins to the suspect but said he did not sell him any weapons.

In this tiny town of 5,000 people just shy of the Pennsylvania border and the adjoining southern tier of New York, some of those who knew or encountered Gendron recently were owners of pawn shops and stores that sold coins and guns. Some of those visits are described in chat logs on a Discord account with the same handle as the one used by the suspect.  

“It was always ‘yes, sir; no, sir; yes, ma’am; no, ma’am,’” the business owner said. The owner said Gendron was always “very polite” and “quiet” when he came into the store.

At The Coin Shop in Johnson City, 20 minutes from Conklin, Gendron was a regular who spent hours on end in the store examining vintage English coins, said Larry Gondek, a numismatist at the store, who waited on him the seven to eight times he stopped in.

There was nothing alarming until he asked about the store’s security cameras during his last visit a few months ago, Gondek said.

The Coin Shop in Johnson City, N.Y.
The Coin Shop in Johnson City, N.Y.Google Maps

Gendron kept asking how many cameras there were inside and outside of the store and where they were placed, he said. When asked why he wanted to know, Gondek said the suspect told him it was because he wanted to feel safe in the store. 

The response didn’t sit well with Gondek, who said he thought about informing the police but eventually changed his mind, reasoning that the suspect was just a kid.

The FBI declined to comment on “specific details related to the suspect’s movements or plans” citing an ongoing investigation. The Buffalo Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Those who knew the suspect in his personal life are also re-examining each and every interaction with him.  

Matthew Casado, 19, said he and the suspect have known each other since childhood, and he described their relationship as best friends for a large part of their lives.  

They lost touch as they neared graduation from Susquehanna Valley High School, Casado said in a text message, but Gendron reached out after graduation “about being lonely and wanting to be around people.”

“Up until Saturday I knew him as a kind person and never knew he was racist being Hispanic myself I had never knew him to be racist. Now it seems that he was living a double life cuz idk how someone could be friends with a race that he hated,” Casado wrote in a text message, using an abbreviation for “I don’t know.”

Senior law enforcement officials said they believe the suspect, who is white, posted a 180-page racist diatribe online. In it, the author revealed plans to attack Black people and repeatedly cited the “great replacement theory,” which falsely proclaims white Americans will be replaced with nonwhite people through immigration, interracial marriage and, eventually, violence. Police said the shooter livestreamed his attack on the video gaming platform Twitch. Twitch said that it removed the stream less than two minutes after the violence in the broadcast began and “indefinitely suspended” the user.

Casado said his former friend “mentioned a school paper he was working on that he was at 80 pages with” when the two went to a flea market together two weeks ago, but he now believes the suspect was referring to the violent document. 

On Monday, at a small grocery store in the heart of Conklin, a sign written in brightly colored chalk outside the entrance read: “Prayers for the people of Buffalo. Prayers for the people of Conklin. United in our sorrow.” 

The suspect worked at the store for a short time, said Carol, an employee who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used to protect her privacy. She said he didn’t talk to many people and didn’t interact with customers. Eventually his time ended because “the job just wasn’t for him,” she said.

Carol said she doesn’t want the suspect to be seen as a reflection of Conklin, which she said is welcoming and inclusive.

“People assume there’s a hive mentality here, but that couldn’t be farther from reality,” she said. “This is a compassionate community, and we are also grieving and hurting for Buffalo. This has broken all of our hearts.” 

Last year, New York State Police investigated Gendron after he made a threat in June about wanting to carry out a shooting while he was a high school student, a senior law enforcement official said. At the time, the suspect was a minor, the official said. He was brought to a hospital for a mental health evaluation, and he was not charged with a crime. 

Jennifer, a Conklin resident who had children at the high school when the threat was made, said parents were never told about the incident and only found out in the wake of the Buffalo tragedy. She spoke on the condition that her last name be withheld for privacy.  

“How could they keep that from us all this time? Our children’s safety was potentially under threat, and they swept it under the rug. The school should have told us. We trusted them,” she said. “If we knew, maybe our community could have stepped in to help the family.” 

Susquehanna Valley High School in Conklin, N.Y., on Monday.Michael Hill / AP

The Susquehanna Valley Central School District did not respond to a request for comment. In a letter to families, the district’s Superintendent Ronald Doig said the district is cooperating with the investigation into the shooting and can not “comment on the process or findings” related to it. Doig said the school district has enhanced security at schools and is offering mental health support services.

“We remain shocked and unspeakably saddened by the tragic, racially motivated hate crime that took place in Buffalo, New York on Saturday,” Doig wrote. “Such hatred and violence are contrary to who we are as a district and a community.”

Jennifer said she knew the suspect and his family. Her children who were closer in age to him described him as “a little off” and “different,” she said. “He didn’t talk much. He was mostly quiet and never interacted much,” she said.

“It’s awful how one sick person can affect so many lives,” she said, adding that the situation has put Conklin in the spotlight for the wrong reasons and that their community will likely have a shameful “black mark” for years to come. “It feels like we’re all under suspicion now by the country.” 

Kaden Levene, 19, was a senior in high school when Gendron was a junior, but the two shared many of the same classes, he said. 

“He was one of the smart kids, and kind of kept to himself and was very off the radar,” he said, adding that the suspect had a few friends and didn’t socialize much outside of that. 

A plaster imprint of Payton Gendron's hand from 2008 on the front porch of his home in Conklin, N.Y. Michael Hill / AP

Levene described him as a little “socially awkward” and said he made “weird jokes” about video games, but Levene said he was never put off by Gendron’s behavior, which at the time Levene chalked up to being shy. 

But now, as he processes more of his time with Gendron, Levene said one memory sticks out.

Levene, who is white, recalled a group project where he was assigned to work with Gendron and a Black student. He said the three worked fine, and he didn’t think twice about it until now. 

“I keep thinking about that more now,” he said. “He acted totally fine and comfortable at the time, but maybe he just kept it all under his skin.”