Last June’s evaluation of the mental health of the suspect in the Buffalo, New York, supermarket mass shooting on Saturday found that Payton Gendron was not dangerous to anyone at that time, according to Broome County District Attorney Michael Korchak.
The 18-year-old is accused of killing 10 people and wounding three others in a racially motivated attack at a Tops grocery store.
Gendron compiled a long manifesto in which he said he carefully plotted his attack, according to authorities. That, along with news accounts that he was detained for an evaluation in 2021, prompted questions about who did what and why he was freed then.
“This defendant had been interviewed by a mental health professional, who deemed him to be not dangerous or not at risk of harming himself or others at that particular time,” Korchak said during a news conference on Wednesday, according to WKBW-TV.
Officials at Susquehanna Valley High School focused on Gendron after he answered “murder/suicide” to an online high school class assignment asking about his retirement plans, the district attorney said, according to WHEC-TV.
Gendron, then 17, said the response was a joke.
“But the teacher was obviously concerned about that so she notified the school,” Korchak said. The school summoned the New York State Police.
“The police got there and the defendant indicated this was all a joke, he was just making fun,” the district attorney said, noting that the state police still took Gendron to Binghamton General Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation.
“He never even mentioned a gun. He didn’t make any direct threats against students at the school or teachers or anything,” Korchak said, according to The Wall Street Journal.
But in an online post, Gendron said he waited 20 hours in an emergency room before a 15-minute interview.
“This proved to me that the US healthcare system is a joke,” he wrote.
“I got out of it because I stuck with the story that I was getting out of class and I just stupidly wrote that down,” Gendron said. “It was not a joke, I wrote that down because that’s what I was planning to do.”
But Korchak said officials could only base their judgments on what they knew at the time and could not have pursued an order under the state “red flag” law that could have taken away Gendron’s guns.
“We have to prove to a judge that the person is an immediate risk of harm to themselves or others,” the district attorney said. “But a mental health professional had found that he wasn’t a risk, so at that point, you have no basis to be requesting the order.”
He said the case was one of a 17-year-old “who had no history of being treated for any mental illness that we know of,” according to WNBF-FM.
Korchak said officials followed all the rules and “they don’t have a crystal ball.”
As to whether the law should be changed, “I am certain members of the New York legislature will review the facts and circumstances of this case and propose appropriate changes as necessary, regarding mental health and background checks when purchasing firearms,” the district attorney said, according to WHAM-TV.
On Wednesday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed an executive order requiring state police to seek court orders to take away guns if they believe there is probable cause someone may harm himself or others.
Experts said risk is one thing tests cannot fully determine.
“There’s absolutely no instrument or tool or test that has been validated to identify risk. You can’t do a CAT scan. You can’t do a blood test,” said Suzanne Bird, director of the Acute Psychiatry Service in the emergency department at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, according to the Wall Street Journal.
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