By Aya Elamroussi, Artemis Moshtaghian and Rob Frehse, CNN
Updated: Thu, 19 May 2022 02:36:22 GMT
Thirty minutes before an 18-year-old White man allegedly carried out a racist mass shooting Saturday at a supermarket in a mostly Black enclave of Buffalo, New York, he revealed his monthslong plot to some on social media.
Payton S. Gendron -- suspected of killing 10 people and wounding three -- had created a private chat room on the communications app Discord and invited people to view his chat logs before his attack at the Tops Friendly Markets store, a Discord spokesperson told CNN.
"What we know at this time is that a private, invite-only server was created by the suspect to serve as a personal diary chat log," a spokesperson for Discord said Tuesday in a statement to CNN. "Approximately 30 minutes prior to the attack, however, a small group of people were invited to and joined the server. Before that, our records indicate no other people saw the diary chat log in this private server."
After Gendron invited people to join the Discord server, his previously private chat room posts would have been accessible to invitees and anyone they may have shared access with, the spokesperson told CNN.
New York's attorney general, meanwhile, said Wednesday she is launching an investigation into social media companies that authorities say Gendron used, including the popular livestreaming platform Twitch, online forum 4Chan and Discord.
"My office is launching investigations into the social media companies that the Buffalo shooter used to plan, promote, and stream his terror attack," New York Attorney General Letitia James said on Twitter on Wednesday.
James will report the findings of the investigation to New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, the governor said Wednesday.
"These social media platforms have to take responsibility. They must be more vigilant in monitoring the content and they must be held accountable for favoring engagement over public safety," said Hochul.
Discord will cooperate with the state attorney general's investigation, a spokesperson for the company said.
In the Discord posts -- eventually shared more widely on the hate-filled 4chan online forum -- the alleged gunman wrote he visited the supermarket three times March 8 to survey its layout. He also wrote he used Google's graph feature for a location's "popular times" to determine the busiest times at the store.
Among the Discord posts, which run from mid-November to May, Gendron wrote he chose the ZIP code in Buffalo because it was the one with the greatest percentage of Black people that's relatively near his home in Conklin, New York. The cities are about 230 miles apart.
Discord removed the server and related content "as soon as" it was aware of it following the shooting, the spokesperson said. The company declined to say whether anyone invited to view the logs alerted moderators to the posts.
4Chan has not responded to CNN's requests for comment about Gendron's posts being shared on the platform.
The shooting targeting the supermarket in the heart of a predominantly Black community is being investigated as a hate crime and an act of racially motivated violent extremism, authorities said, noting 11 of the 13 people shot were Black. Among those killed was a former police officer who tried to stop the shooter, a teacher, a taxi driver and shoppers, all ages 32 to 86.
The suspect used Twitch to stream a live broadcast during the attack, the company previously confirmed, adding it was "devastated" to hear about the shooting. Twitch said the user was "indefinitely suspended from our service, and we are taking all appropriate action, including monitoring for any accounts rebroadcasting this content."
The company removed the livestream less than two minutes after the violence started, a Twitch spokesperson said.
Gendron has pleaded not guilty to a charge of first-degree murder, officials said, noting additional charges are forthcoming.
Employee describes barricading a door and protecting others
Jerome Bridges, a Tops market employee, said he was in a store aisle when he heard shots ring out.
"That's all you heard, was firing, constant firing -- firing and firing and firing," Bridges, who is a scan coordinator at the market, told CNN. He jumped into action, taking three of his coworkers and several customers to the store's break room and barricaded the door with an oak desk.
"I ran to the back part of the store where the conference room is at, down the long hallway, and I grabbed my produce manager and my night ops manager, a cashier and about five to six customers, telling them to get in there and duck down," he recalled. "That's when I thought to myself, he might come busting through the door. So, there's an old oak table back there that I put up to the door with one arm and barricaded the door."
Bridges said he could hear people screaming and crying as he tried to keep the group he was with quiet and on the ground, hearing the shooter approach from the other side of the door. He said he remembered seeing the suspected shooter in the market several weeks ago, saying "he had on the same exact clothes."
"When I was sitting on that table, making sure that nobody could come through it, I thought he was actually going to come back there and start shooting at the doors and stuff," Bridges said. "I just wanted to make sure I kept the customers and my other three coworkers very safe. So, even if I would have died, it would have been, you know, me dying protecting them."
Suspect's social media footprint key to probe
Since the shooting, the suspect's online trail has revealed details about his plans for the attack. And officials have followed his digital footprint to piece together his motives.
First, Gendron chose a grocery store as his crime scene over a church or an elementary school because the store would attract many people at its peak times, according to his Discord posts that were published on 4chan.
He then took note of how many Black and White people were there each time he visited on March 8 and drew a map of the store's interior, his posts show. The posts also reveal that the shooter planned his attack for March 15 but delayed it several times.
When he carried out the shooting, he wore a tactical helmet and plated armor and livestreamed his moves, Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said.
Officials are also examining a 180-page racist document they say was written by Gendron and posted online shortly before the shooting. In it, the suspect confesses to the attack and described himself as a fascist, a White supremacist and an anti-Semite.
The document says the attacker didn't start seriously planning the attack until January. The author also shares his perspective on the dwindling size of the White population and claims of ethnic and cultural replacement of Whites.
"All the evidence that we ascertain from that manifesto, from wherever that manifesto leads us, other pieces of evidence we already had, we can then use that and develop more charges potentially," Erie County District Attorney John Flynn said.
Discord, launched in 2015, isn't as well-known as big names like Instagram, even as it surged to 150 million monthly active users globally during the pandemic. Reminiscent of anonymous chat rooms, it blends the feel of early AOL chat rooms or work chat app Slack with the chaotic, personalized world of MySpace and is known for its video game communities.
Previous school threat under investigation
Another warning sign may have been a threat he made in June when he was a student at Susquehanna Valley Central High School in Conklin, Gramaglia said.
Gendron made a project on murder-suicides, which prompted police to take him for a mental health evaluation, Gramaglia said. Gendron was released after the evaluation, he said.
The evaluation was not an involuntary commitment, so it would not have prevented the suspected shooter from purchasing or possessing a gun under federal law, said New York State Police spokesperson Beau Duffy.
Now, the Broome County District Attorney's Office is investigating that school threat incident, as well as the suspect's overall behavior, he said.
"We're even going back several years as far as what his behavior was at that point in time, his relationship with his family, his relationship with teachers and students at the school," prosecutor Michael Korchak told CNN.
It's "hard to say" whether more should have been done at the time of the threat was made, he added.
"So there were no direct threats made to any student or teacher," Korchak said. "Individuals that have mental health issues may have it under control for a period of time, and then one day they just snap and things as tragic as this happen."
No red flag order requested
After the school threat, New York State Police officials did not seek a "red flag" order of protection against Gendron, a state police spokesman told CNN on Tuesday.
The Red Flag Law, also known as the extreme risk protection order law, was enacted on August 24, 2019, and is designed to prevent anyone who shows signs of being a threat to themselves or others from purchasing a firearm, according to the state website.
State police declined to go into detail about why they did not seek the red flag. "The threat was general in nature and did not target the school or anyone in particular, and did not specifically mention shooting or firearms," a law enforcement official told CNN.
Certain clinicians who determine if someone's "likely to engage in conduct that would result in serious harm to self or others" are required to report that to a county health commissioner, who can report that to the state's Division of Criminal Justice Services, which can block people from buying guns and revoke gun permits, a former senior official in the state Office of Mental Health told CNN this week.
Federal law prohibits someone involuntarily committed to a mental health institution from buying a gun, the official said. It doesn't cover someone in a mental institution "for observation," the official said.
Gov. Hochul on Wednesday signed an executive order requiring state police to file an extreme risk order of protection under the state's red flag law when they believe someone is a threat to themselves or others.
"Current law, it's an option to do so, and now it will be a requirement," the governor said in a news conference. "We will provide law enforcement with the guidance they need, the criteria to follow and we believe that together, these steps are necessary to confront the stem of rising hatred, White supremacism in our state."
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Gendron's plea. He has pleaded not guilty.