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Ten people were killed and three others injured, two seriously, outside and inside a Tops supermarket on Jefferson Avenue Saturday afternoon in what law enforcement described as a racially motivated hate crime.
“It’s like walking into a horror movie, but everything is real. It’s like Armageddon,” said the police officer 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,” Erie County Sheriff John Garcia said, “straight up, a racially motivated hate crime.”
Four Tops employees were among the dead, including a recently retired Buffalo police officer who worked security for the store. The Buffalo News is withholding the identity of the retired officer because it could not be determined if his family had been notified.
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The gunman is 18 years old, police said. He has not been identified, but he was scheduled to be arraigned on Saturday night.
The shooter was wearing a bulletproof vest and was armed with a high-powered rifle, police sources said.
Up to five bodies were found in the parking lot, the police officer at the scene said.
“There are bullets and blood everywhere,” the source said.
Shonnell Harris, operations manager for Tops, said he heard gunshots and ran frantically through the store, landing several times before exiting out the back. He saw the shooter, whom he described as a white male dressed in camouflage. “He looked like he was in the army.” Harris thought he heard 70 shots.
The shooter had a camera and police are investigating whether he 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 the two sources.
The shooter was encased in body armor and had a military-grade helmet on his head.
It is unknown if he offered a reason for the massacre.
A video posted on Twitter showed two Buffalo police officers with a man who appears to be in custody outside the Tops store. The man is a white male dressed in camouflage pants, wearing what appears to be a mask over his mouth. The News has not been able to confirm that the person detained in the video was the shooter.
Immediately after the shooting, Braedyn Kaphart and Shayne Hill said they almost came face to face with the shooter when they were turning their Equinox into a parking space in the Tops parking lot.
Kaphart described him as a middle-aged man in his late teens or early 20s with dirty blonde hair.
“He was standing there in his military gear and his gun to his chin, like he was going to blow his head off,” Kaphart said. “We weren’t sure what was going on. As he continued to do that, he got down on one knee and it still looked like he was going to shoot himself.”
Kaphart said he then looked away.
“I turned my head and turned around as the police told us to get back in our cars,” he said.
When Kaphart looked back, he said it appeared police officers had accosted and detained the man. They watched as he was put into a police vehicle and taken away.
She shuddered at the thought of what might have happened if they had reached Tops a little sooner.
“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, with some of the deceased appearing to be hiding near checkout lines.
Adding to the horror, one of the sources said, family members arrived after word spread in the community about the shooting.
Others on the scene began broadcasting the shooting on Facebook Live.
Will G., a frozen dairy worker in Tops on Jefferson, said he went into the refrigerator to store milk about three minutes before the shooting. “I just heard shots. Shots and shots and shots,” he said. “It sounded like things were falling down.”
The worker hid in the cooler and was joined by more people, he said. “I hid. I just hid. I wasn’t going to leave that room.”
Harris described the busy scene in Tops. “It was packed. It’s the weekend, so it was packed.”
“It’s like a dream, but I know it’s not a dream,” said Harris, Tops operations manager. 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’d be one of them,” Harris said. Harris, whose daughter Denise also works at 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 have been unable to communicate despite multiple phone calls and requests to police. Massey’s brother had dropped Katherine off for a routine shopping trip.
“She was supposed to be waiting in front of 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 that 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 I saw him shoot this woman,” Crofton said. “She was walking into the store. And then she shot another woman. She was putting groceries in her car. I got out because I didn’t know if she was going to shoot me.”
Crofton also saw the emergency services arrive.
“The guy walked out of the store, the cops were just yelling at him and he just stood there. He just stood there. It was like he wanted to get shot,” Crofton said. The shooter began to remove his gear, Crofton continued, when another police car pulled up, officers got out and jumped on the shooter.
Veronica Hemphill-Nichols said she was walking to the Tops for a loaf of bread and saw two bodies in the parking lot.
“When I saw those bodies, I just broke down. I’m angry and I’m trying to shut down,” she said.
Hemphill-Nichols also said she saw people running out of the store and saw a woman frantically asking, “Where is my daughter?”
Johnnie Emmons was inside his home, about five doors down from the Tops, on Landon Street, when he said he heard bursts of gunfire. He first came a burst of about 20 shots, then, after a short pause, about 20 more shots.
A large police presence closed off the area north of Jefferson Avenue at 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 shooting 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.