Law enforcement authorities don’t have a crystal ball, the district attorney in Broome County said Wednesday as he defended the way police and a high school there dealt with Payton S. Gendron in June.
Eleven months before Gendron was charged with first-degree murder in the cold-blooded killings of 10 people in Buffalo, he was a 17-year-old senior in Conklin, N.Y., who used the term “murder-suicide” when asked in an economics lesson what he planned to do in retirement.
The 18-year-old white supremacist accused of killing 10 people at an East Side Tops on Saturday considered dozens of other locations – including a Buffalo barbershop, a Syracuse shopping mall and a Rochester Walmart – before deciding the Jefferson Avenue supermarket would allow him to target the largest number of Black victims.
Speaking to reporters in Binghamton, Broome District Attorney Michael Korchak said a Susquehanna Valley High School teacher reported the comment, which had been made electronically, to a school resource officer. Because Gendron had been at home during online instruction, the State Police, rather than the school resource officer, followed up, Korchak said.
The State Police visited the home, talked to the student and persuaded him to undergo a mental health evaluation at Binghamton General Hospital, Korchak said, though he never used Gendron’s name during the news conference.
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When a doctor evaluated Gendron as not dangerous – a key hurdle required in the Mental Hygiene Law to hold someone against their will – he was returned home and allowed to graduate days later.
The gunman in Saturday's racist massacre was on the radar of state police more than a year before his rampage. He underwent a required mental health evaluation, but still could buy weapons, post online his plans to murder Black people and scope out his target.
National attention has focused on what the authorities did in Broome County, with people speculating that a firmer response might have prevented the massacre in Buffalo on Saturday. Was this a red flag, which, under New York law, could have barred Gendron from owning a weapon or from buying the AR-15 assault rifle authorities said was used in the attack?
"Why is it that this 18-year-old with a mental health history can buy an AR-15?" Buffalo attorney Terrence Connors asked Monday as he appeared with the grieving family of one of the victims, Ruth Whitfield, 86.
Korchak said that for him to go into court to seize Gendron’s weapons or prevent him from buying new ones, he would need evidence that the then-17-year-old was dangerous. He wouldn’t have had the evidence since a doctor had just deemed him not dangerous.
Reporters pressed him for a course of action that might have led to a different result. Korchak said that if the school year had not been coming to an end and Gendron had not graduated, school counselors might have followed up. And, if the Binghamton General doctor did recommend treatment – Korchak said he did not know if the doctor did or did not – Gendron should have sought treatment.
No one called police about Gendron in the following months.
“From June of 2021 to last Saturday, he was off the radar,” Korchak said.
Authorities now know that Gendron eventually plotted out a shooting rampage targeting Black people because he embraced white supremacy and racist conspiracy theories. He chose a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo as his first target.
Korchak predicted that lawmakers in Albany will examine this case for changes in the law.
“Anything we can do to prevent what happened on Saturday, I am in favor of looking at,’’ he said.