BUFFALO, NY (WKBW) — Families of the victims of the Tops mass shooting on Jefferson Avenue filled three rows of a federal courtroom in Buffalo Thursday to see the accused shooter, 18-year-old Payton Gendron, for an initial appearance.
“It’s hard being here. It's hard being in a courtroom with a terrorist — seeing the man who tried to kill my son,” declared Zeneta Everhart.
Everhart's 21-year-old son Zaire Goodman survived the mass shooting at Tops. She was among a number of the victim's families who attended the court hearing who said they felt compelled to be at court for the proceeding.
“Because I'm a human — like he's a human, so I need some understanding through this and I don't understand how another human can carry out something like this, so I need to be here,” explained Everhart.
Tamika Harper's Aunt Geraldine Talley was among those shot and killed. She reacted to seeing the defendant, who investigators call a white supremacist that came to Buffalo to kill Black people.
“It just made me angry — very angry — very, very angry. He has not shown a lick of remorse. He has no remorse,” Harper responded.
The suspect appeared before U.S. Federal Magistrate Kenneth Schroeder on a criminal complaint after being arrested Thursday on federal charges.
There was tightened security in and outside the courthouse. Those attending the hearing were required to go through an additional layer of security outside the judge's courtroom.
The defendant appeared, just as he did in the state supreme court, in an orange jumpsuit, shackles, and a face mask.
The judge asked him a series of questions regarding his finances because he requested a public defender. The defendant answered mostly “yes” and “no” to the questions.
The accused killer says he only has $16 in a bank account, doesn't own a car, but has two shares of Disney stock.
“Everything he said surprised me — saying he had $16 in his account. He had no vehicle — but he was able to drive three hours away. He was able to buy all these expensive guns and everything else that he purchased and drive three hours away and he was going to make it back home as well,” Harper said.
“I’m angry. I’m disgusted — for a minute it makes you lose hope and humanity,” said Everhart. “Hearing his voice, you know, shakes me.”
Public defenders were appointed to represent him. The judge asked prosecutors to decide quickly if they will be pursuing the death penalty for this case because it would carry a "substantial" cost to taxpayers.
Buffalo Attorney John Elmore, who is representing two of the victim's families, says this cannot be a quick decision.
“As an attorney with death penalty experience — it's unrealistic that the government is going to make a determination in 30-days. It's going to take a long time. There's going to be a panel in Washington that's going to look at,” described Elmore.
But as stated in court, the decision is the "sole decision" of the U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland. Garland was in Buffalo Wednesday to meet with victims' families and outline the federal complaint.
“I trust the U.S. Attorney General. If that is the direction that he thinks we need to go in this case, then that's where we are going to go,” Everhart replied.
“I’m a very Christian person. I believe in God and I don't wish death on anyone, but this right here — I have to work on that because I’d rather see him dead. I would rather see him dead,” Harper remarked.
The federal complaint referenced a survivor of the shooting.
Everhart reflected on the horrific shooting that wounded her son.
“He said he was just in burning and he tried to move, but he couldn't move at first and then one of his co-workers came and helped him up and they ran across the street and that's when he called me — he called me — that’s how I found out,” Everhart recalls.
Harper says she is wondering where Gendron’s parents have been and why they haven’t reached out to the victim's families.
“For his parents not to even be here — for his parents not to even reach out to anyone, and I mean their apology is going to mean nothing at all to us — why wouldn't they. This is their son. They created this animal — that bothers me that the parents are just nowhere to be found,” Harper described.
The federal prosecutor says the next step is an indictment and has 30-days to present to a grand jury.
The suspect waived his right to a detention and bail hearing. He was returned to state custody where he is already facing a terrorism charge and 24 other charges and arraigned on a grand jury indictment on June 1 in Erie County Court. He faces life without parole if found guilty on the highest charge.
Gendron is being held at the Erie County Holding Center.