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The Buffalo shooting suspect's online footprint prompts questions about red flags

People gather at the scene of a mass shooting at Tops Friendly Market at Jefferson Avenue and Riley Street on Monday, May 16, 2022 in Buffalo, NY.
Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
People gather at the scene of a mass shooting at Tops Friendly Market at Jefferson Avenue and Riley Street on Monday, May 16, 2022 in Buffalo, NY.

Extremism researchers are combing through the digital footprint believed to be left behind by the man accused of shooting 13 people, killing 10 of them, in a racially motivated attack at a Buffalo supermarket.

Among the materials is a nearly 600 page chat log written by an individual who identifies himself as Payton Gendron, the same name as the killing suspect, documenting roughly six months of personal reflections and activities leading up to the attack. The record, created on the social chat platform Discord, paints a picture of a committed racist obsessed with the mechanics of planning and executing a deadly mass shooting.

Among the questions that experts are bringing to the document are: what red flags might have been missed by those around this individual? Where might there have been an intervention? And, what insight might it offer on what differentiates someone who carries out a violent attack from others who may share similar extremist views?

But they also caution that the record should be read with a degree of skepticism.

"Although he is seemingly candidly laying out his thoughts and observations on the world [and] his planning for the attack, he's also writing for an audience," said Emerson Brooking, resident senior fellow at the Digital Forensic Research Lab of the Atlantic Council. "So that means any content in the document we should treat with some suspicion."

Missing pieces

The log, which appears to have functioned as a sort of digital diary for its author, was kept on the chat platform Discord. Shortly before the attack, its author shared a link pointing to a PDF printout of the log on another social media platform. The record at times suggests that the author was speaking to an audience during the six months he posted to the log. But a Discord spokesperson said nobody else appears to have had access to the server until just prior to the rampage.

"Approximately 30 minutes prior to the attack ... a small group of people were invited to and joined the server," a Discord spokesperson wrote in a statement. "Before that, our records indicate no other people saw the diary chat log in this private server."

Although Discord took down the server where the document and chat log were located, copies continue to circulate online. Throughout, the author of the log writes extensively about his efforts to acquire and test equipment for the attack, and his process of determining where he would carry it out. He periodically keeps track of mundane daily details, such as his exercise routine and food intake. But researchers note that content relating to the author's racist and anti-Semitic beliefs largely draws from other sources.

"He often lets the manifestos of previous white supremacist terrorists speak for him," said Brooking.

The document's author repeatedly indicates that he has edited the chat log before releasing it to the public. That, and the timeline of entries that show blocks of missing dates, has raised just as much interest around what is missing from the record as what is contained in it.

"It's kind of like why did he delete this whole section?" said Kesa White, a program research associate at American University's Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab. "Somebody might have been privy to information [about his planning the attack] but he deleted it because it incriminated someone."

The writings suggest that a livestreamed video of another white terrorist attack that took place in 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which 51 people were killed, was inspiration behind the massacre in Buffalo. And from the very beginning of the record, it is clear that the writer had committed to a path of violence.

"What really stands out is the inevitability with which he speaks about the attack. He has resolved months in advance that he is going to murder people for this racist cause," said Brooking. "And although he often expresses doubt and suicidal ideation, he still treats it as is inevitable that he's going to do this thing."

Red flags and missed signs

According to the log, the author's suicidal ideations did come to the attention of others on at least one occasion. In an incident that he revisits several times, he recounts being sent to an emergency room for nearly a full day in May 2021 after writing "murder/suicide" in response to the question "What do you want to do when you retire?" on a school assignment. Calling it a "bad experience," he described it as a significant moment for him.

"This experience only helped to prove my belief that people, even certified doctors, are not concerned about helping you," he wrote.

He noted that at that point he was already contemplating an attack, and so he lied and said he was making a joke. "That is the reason I believe I am still able to purchase guns," he wrote.

The document also raises questions about his parents' awareness of his activities and mental state. In one instance, he wrote about chasing and decapitating a cat. Then, he wrote that his mother helped him bury it.

"That's a very big deal," said White, whose research also includes work on serial killers. "You see that's one of the big things that serial killers have in common ... [is] the killing of animals. So all of the red flags were there."

The writings also raise questions about whether school administrators at SUNY Broome, where the suspect was enrolled in an Engineering Science program, missed warning signs. The author's log shows that over time he devoted ever greater amounts of time to preparing for the mass shooting. Eventually, he writes that he dropped out of college because he had missed so many classes.

In an e-mail to NPR sent Saturday evening, a SUNY Broome spokesperson confirmed that the suspect is not currently enrolled. But the statement said the university would "rely on the investigating agencies to release any additional information, as appropriate."

When asked specifically about whether the school missed any red flags, a SUNY Broome spokesperson declined to comment Friday and referred to the previously made statement.

"I am left wondering why an intervention did not occur?" said Brooking. "How he fell so completely through the cracks and, for the better part of a year, saw as his full-time job writing a manifesto and preparing to commit an act of terrorism."

Unique concern about this online diary

The digital diary asserts that the author was first exposed to the racist conspiracy theory known as the Great Replacement, and then was inspired to commit a mass shooting, by materials he accessed online of the Christchurch, shooter. He also cites screeds posted by a number of other violent extremists, including a domestic terrorist who killed 77 people in attacks in Norway in 2011. Extremism researchers are worried that writings and video believed to be linked to the Buffalo gunman will add to the radicalizing materials that copycats look at online, and that they may even prove more harmful than what was available before the attack.

"I'm very concerned about this because for other young men in his position, they are going to find these documents and they are going to be inspired because they might read the words of of a young man who reminds them of themselves," said Brooking.

Brooking notes that, at several points in the log, the writer expresses self-doubt about carrying out the attack and even acknowledges the humanity of some of his would-be victims. On a trip to Buffalo in March, where he writes of visiting the city to map out the attack in more detail, he writes of experiencing a panic attack.

"I find that concerning because it it opens the door for other would-be shooters to empathize with him in a way that they might not with other terrorists," said Brooking. "They might read the words of a young man who reminds them of themselves. And it is that personal element of these documents which I think may be one of their darkest legacy in the years to come."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.