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Son of Buffalo mass shooting victim fears death penalty will make suspect ‘a martyr’

Alysha Webb/ABC News

(BUFFALO, N.Y.) — While federal prosecutors are weighing whether to seek the death penalty against the suspect in the racially motivated Buffalo, New York, mass shooting that left 10 Black people dead, the son of one of the victims told ABC News he does not want to see the alleged teenage gunman made into a martyr.

Wayne Jones, the only child of 65-year-old Celestine Chaney, one of the people slain in the May 14 mass shooting, said he would rather see the white suspect, Payton Gendron, 19, spend the rest of his life behind bars.

“When you see him in court, he’s a child. You can tell he’s a child and, whether he tells anybody or not, you can see it in his face, ‘I messed up badly,'” Jones, 49, the father of six children, told ABC News. “So, for me, I would rather for him to just stay behind bars for the rest of his life. If you kill him, he becomes a martyr.”

As Jones spoke out, a new federal Joint Intelligence Bulletin obtained by ABC News warns that the public disclosure of Gendron’s nearly 700-page online diary is likely to enhance the capability of copycat attackers.

The National Counterterrorism Center document from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security said the tactics, techniques and procedures Gendron allegedly wrote about “may contribute to the current threat landscape” because it represents a “how-to guide for future attackers.”

“DHS, FBI and NCTC (The National Counterterrorism Center) assess that the dissemination of written guidance outlining the tactics, techniques and procedures used by the alleged Buffalo attacker will likely enhance the capabilities of potential mass casualty shooters who may be inspired by this attack,” the bulletin said.

Gendron is accused of planning the massacre for months — including traveling to the store, a more than three-hour drive from his home in Conklin, New York — to sketch the layout and count the number of Black people present, federal prosecutors said. Gendron was allegedly motivated by a racist, far-right conspiracy known as replacement theory and he wanted to “inspire others to commit similar attacks,” according to a federal criminal complaint.

Surge in attacks on Black community

But Garnell Whitfield Jr., the former Buffalo fire commissioner, whose 86-year-old mother, Ruth Whitfield, was the oldest victim killed in the rampage, told ABC News a surge in attacks on the Black community, fueled by what he described as an increase of racist rhetoric from right-wing leaders, was occurring long before the Buffalo killing rampage.

In 2015, white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine Black members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, during a Bible study. Roof, who was convicted on federal hate crime charges and sentenced to death, confessed he wanted to ignite a race war.

In 2017, avowed white supremacist James Alex Fields Jr. deliberately drove his car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters at a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one woman and injuring dozens of other people. Fields, who pleaded guilty to 29 of 30 federal hate crimes, was sentenced to life in prison. He was also convicted on state murder charges.

According to FBI statistics, the number of reported hate crimes against Blacks in America in 2020 was 2,871, up from 1,972 in 2019.

Whitfield said he’d rather spend his time focused on the dynamics driving the rise in hate crimes than on the teenager accused in the Tops store rampage.

“But listen, this ain’t about that guy. This guy is an insignificant pawn being used by the powers that be, by the system that be, to do their dirty work, OK,” Whitfield said of Gendron, refusing to say his name. “So, I’m not going to focus on him. He’s in custody.”

He added, “He’s certainly going to get whatever he gets. I don’t care if he gets the death penalty or not. I don’t really care about him. I’m not going to spend my time talking about him or focusing on him. The truth of the matter is that I’m focused on the things that empowered him and the reason he became who he was. The systems and the people that continue to be in power to this day that continue to make victims of us all.”

‘I don’t wish death on anyone’: Tops shooting survivor

Fragrance Harris Stanfield, a Tops worker who survived the shooting, also told ABC News that she is against putting anyone to death.

“I mean, obviously he should not be released. Whether he gets the death penalty or not, that is not one thing that I would think about. I’m not into death like that. I don’t wish death on anyone for any reason,” said Harris Stanfield, a mother of seven who says she is a devout Muslim.

An educator in the Buffalo public schools, who was working at Tops as a second job to make ends meet, Harris Stanfield said she was grateful the federal charges against the suspect have been updated to include victims like her who were not physically injured in the shooting but have been left traumatized by what they experienced.

Harris Stanfield said she was thankful that federal prosecutors listened to her when she voiced her concern that initially no charges were filed on behalf of victims who were not killed or injured. She said that when she saw the first charges filed against the suspect, she was “grieved again.”

“I felt like there was a totally different set of trauma being that it was just for the people who were shot or people who were killed,” Harris Stanfield said. “Everyone else was not included.”

The 27-count federal indictment charges Gendron with 14 violations of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, including 10 counts of hate crimes resulting in death, three counts of hate crimes involving an attempt to kill three injured individuals, and one hate crimes count alleging the suspect attempted to kill additional Black people in and around the Tops grocery store. He’s also charged with 13 firearms offenses.

Like Jones, Whitfield said he has attended several court hearings for Gendron and has concluded, “He’s a victim, too.”

“He’s just too stupid and ignorant to know it. His whole problem, if you read his manifesto, he was ostracized and picked on his whole life, he felt,” Whitfield said. “It wasn’t by Black people. No Black people live near him. It was mean-spirited people, but it wasn’t Black people. He had no reason to channel, but they helped him channel that anger to us. He’s an afterthought. If I had my way, would I do something to him? Probably so for hurting my mother. But the more important thing to me is the systems that we all have been living with, that we all have been suffering from. And that’s where I want to focus my energy.”

Whitfield said he would like to see a serious dialogue in America occur over the rise of white supremacy, but doubts that will happen because “it’s not convenient.”

“You would have to acknowledge that your ancestors enslaved my ancestors and built this country on our backs. You would have to acknowledge all those things. You would have to acknowledge the lies that you’ve been taught. And you’d have to acknowledge the faults of your ancestors, of your belief system. You would have to come to grips with all that. And that’s uncomfortable,” Whitfield said.

Suspect was ‘a kid on the internet for years’

Meanwhile, Jones said he believes Gendron could be more help in combating future racially motivated attacks if he is kept alive.

“Just let him sit there and let him think like I’ve got to keep thinking. For the rest of my life, I’ve got to think about it. My mom is gone. So, the rest of his life, he needs to think about, ‘I can’t hug my mother because I did this and I’m in here.’ So, that’s the outcome I would like,” Jones told ABC News. “I know some people want the death penalty for him. Probably if I were younger, that’s probably how I would go. But I’ve got kids. I’ve had 18-year-old kids and you make a lot of mistakes when you’re younger. He made a big one. But he doesn’t come across to me as a hard-core terrorist.”

He said ideally, he would like to see a program in which others thinking of following in the suspect’s footsteps be brought to prison to speak with him, so he can tell them, “don’t get caught in what I did.”

Jones agrees with Whitfield that Gendron wasn’t just a lone wolf.

“He just sits with his head down. He could be brainwashed. You’re talking about a kid on the internet for years,” Jones said. “Somebody brainwashed him into this, or talked him into doing it, gave him the idea and kept feeding him that the Blacks are taking over and this and that.”

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