CONKLIN, NY (AP) – In the final days of the COVID-19-changing final year of Payton Gendron at Susquehanna Valley High School, he logged into a virtual education program in an economics class asking, “What are you planning to do when you retire?” ?”
Gendron wrote “a fatal suicide.”
Despite his protest that it was all a joke, the bespectacled 17-year-old who had long been seen as a smart recluse was questioned by the state police about the potential threat and then taken into custody and taken to hospital for a psychological evaluation. Under state mental health law.
But after a day and a half, he was released. Two weeks later, he was allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies, including a senior parade ride, where he was photographed atop a convertible driven by his father and decorated with yellow and blue balloons and banners reading “Congratulations” and “Payton Gendron.”
That account of Gendron’s disagreement with the law last spring, according to authorities and other people familiar with what happened, emphasized the same point school officials made in a letter to parents at the time: The investigation found no specific and credible threat against the school or any individual That’s a sign of trouble.
The same young white man bought a Bushmaster XM-15 rifle, traveled three hours to Buffalo and went on what authorities say was a racist shooting attack that was broadcast live. Saturday in a crowded supermarket left 10 dead blacks.
Gendron, now 18, was brought to court for premeditated murder over the weekend, and a court-appointed public defender entered a not-guilty suit on his behalf. He remained incarcerated on suicide probation while federal prosecutors contemplate hate crime charges.
Even as the FBI overran the cozy home where Gendron lived with his parents and two younger brothers, neighbors and classmates in this 5,000-person community near the New York Pennsylvania line say they had no idea who the young man was now described on TV.
They say they have never seen the kind of racist rhetoric seen in a 180-page online sermon, allegedly written by Gendron, in which he describes in detail how he searched zip codes with higher concentrations of blacks, and watched a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, The attack was carried out to intimidate all non-white and non-Christian people to leave the country.
President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden in Buffalo, New York to honor the victims of the supermarket shooting.
Gendron was described by his classmates as a quiet, hardworking boy who scored high but seemed out of place in recent years, turning to online streaming games, a fascination with guns and ways to get the attention of his peers.
When the school partially opened again early last year after the COVID-19-related closures, Gendron appeared covered from head to toe in a protective suit. Classmate Matthew Casado said he didn’t think the stunt – which he called a “harmless joke” – worked well with the other students.
“Most people didn’t relate to him,” he said. “They didn’t want to be known as friends of a kid who was socially awkward and neurotic.”
Gendron excelled in science, and once received the highest marks in a state chemistry competition. But he has been known to keep to himself and not talk much. And when he spoke, it was all about isolation, rejection, and despair.
“He talked about not liking school because he had no friends. He would have said he was lonely,” said Casado, who graduated with Gendron last year.
Sometime last winter, Gendron’s mother called Casado’s mother and asked: Please ask Matthew to call Peyton because he has no friends and needs to talk.
The two boys ended up going to flea markets together, watching YouTube videos and shooting guns at nearby state land for the next few months. Casado said he had never heard his friend talk about anything violent.
“I didn’t think it would hurt a fly,” he said.
Some neighbors took a similar view, seeing the family as happy and prosperous, with Paul Gendron and his wife Pamela both holding stable jobs as civil engineers with the New York State Department of Transportation, earning nearly $200,000 combined, according to Internet records.
Dozens of their Facebook posts over the years show parents and their three children—often dressed in identical outfits— enjoying park vacations, going on boat trips, shooting laser pistols, and opening presents on Christmas morning.
Carl Lobdel, a family friend who first met Jendron on a camping vacation 12 years ago, said he was shocked when Payton was identified as a suspect in the mass shooting.
“He was very friendly and respectful,” Lobdel said, adding that his family had grown so close to the Gendrons that they attended Payton’s graduation party last year. “When I heard about the shooting… I just cried.”
The family did not respond to a request for comment over the weekend, nor did Gendron’s attorney. No one answered the door on Monday in the family’s home, surrounded by a clean, spacious garden. Near the front door was a small right hand pressed into concrete with a heart symbol and the words, “PAYTON 2008.”
One of the parents of a Susquehanna Valley High School student said she was angry that the student who was investigated for threatening last year – who she later found out to be Gendron – was still allowed to participate in all graduation activities. The woman requested anonymity because she fears harassment.
According to a recording of a phone call between federal and local law enforcement officials on Monday obtained by The Associated Press, Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Grammaglia said Gendron’s comments he made at the school in June 2021 were “public statements” and did not target anyone in private or in a setting. Specific, which is why no criminal charges have been brought. He said the state police “did everything within the limits of the law.”
Gendron attended Broome County Community College and later dropped out. The school does not say why. According to online writings attributed to him, he began planning his attack on the Buffalo supermarket beginning at least November, saying it was instilled in his racist views online.
According to one of the passages, “I have never been diagnosed with a disability or mental disorder, and I think I am completely sane.”
A new 589-page document from diary publications surfaced online Monday that authorities attributed to Gendron, some of which were traced back to the account provided by Associated Press sources about his investigation into the high school threat.
“Another bad experience was when I had to go to ER hospitals because I said the word ‘murder/suicide’ in an online paper in the economics class,” said one interviewer. “I got out of it because I stuck to the story I was getting out of class and wrote stupidly. That is why I think I can still buy guns.”
“It wasn’t a joke, I wrote it because that’s what I was planning to do.”
Condon reported from New York. Eric Tucker from Washington, Michael R. Sisak from New York, and news researcher Rhonda Schaffner from New York contributed.
Contact the AP’s global investigative team at Investigative@ap.org.