They talked about black holes, Niagara Falls and critical race theory, and the young man told Grady Lewis he had stopped at McDonald’s and was heading to a campsite.
Lewis spotted the man at the Tops supermarket on Jefferson Avenue around 5 p.m. Friday and immediately was concerned because he looked out of place.
Lewis, 50, visits the store nearly every day to chat with employees and customers from the neighborhood. He knows just about everyone who walks through the doors, but he had never seen this young white man, who had brown hair and wore a shirt with the word “Genius” on the front.
The gregarious Lewis used it as an opportunity to get a conversation going. The man identified himself as Payton, an 18-year-old college student from near the Pennsylvania state line who took a scenic drive to Buffalo, according to Lewis.
He was soft-spoken and didn’t smile, frown or offer much in the way of reaction, even as Lewis expressed strong opinions on American history, race and other subjects.
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“I was trying to find out the reason why he wasn’t supposed to be there,” said Lewis.
Lewis never got that answer on Friday before the young man departed in a blue Ford sedan.
Despite what he described as a strange “aura” about the man, Lewis said he never got the sense he was a white supremacist with evil intent.
“That kid I talked to on Friday wasn’t racist or prejudice. I’ve been around racist people before. I’ve been around prejudiced people before. He didn’t give off none of that energy,” said Lewis.
A day later, Lewis watched in horror as Buffalo police took Payton Gendron of Conklin, Broome County, into custody following a racist mass shooting at the Tops that killed 10 people and wounded three others.
The 18-year-old man accused in Saturday’s racist massacre scoped out the Tops supermarket in Buffalo the day before the shooting and was asked by a manager to leave, according to the manager’s brother.
Lewis is convinced that Gendron is the man he spoke to for 90 minutes on Friday, some 20 hours before the shooting. A Tops security guard was part of the discussion, as was Greg Elmore, who lives in the neighborhood.
“He was shy or kind of nervous, but mostly shy. He seemed like he was trying to get away, but he (Lewis) has a way of keeping people where they’re at by just talking to ‘em,” said Elmore.
Between drags of a cigarette, Lewis recalled the encounter in vivid detail outside his home, a short walk from where President Biden visited Tops on Tuesday to mourn the slain victims.
Lewis said he peppered the young man with questions and expressed his own strong views.
Lewis said the man readily told him and the security guard his name, Payton.
“I’m horrible with names. I called him Matthew about five times,” Lewis recalled, adding that the security guard had to correct him a few times.
After his first few queries produced only short answers, Lewis said the man’s T-shirt provided an opening to continue talking.
“I said, ‘You’re a genius?’ He said, ‘I graduated high school when I was 16,’” recalled Lewis. (Gendron did not graduate until 2021, when he was 17 or 18, according to the Broome County District Attorney’s Office.)
“I said, ‘Well, how old are you now? And he said, ‘I’m 18,’ ” Lewis said.
The young man said he was studying engineering in college, and he talked about string theory and dark matter and making a time machine.
The young man became thirsty at one point, and Lewis offered him his keychain Tops bonus card to go inside and get a discount on his purchase.
At another point, Lewis asked the man for his thoughts on critical race theory. According to Lewis, he responded by saying that “it teaches that all whites are violent,” and Lewis offered a long rebuttal.
The young man listened to what Lewis had to say and didn’t become disagreeable or contentious at any point, said Lewis. Lewis said he never appeared suspicious or threatening.
“This whole thing was to get him to do something, to say something so I could call the police or call some people down the street,” said Lewis. “That was the only goal. He didn’t give me anything. He gave me nothing at all.”
In chilling detail, the accused shooter laid out in a 180-page manifesto why he wanted to kill, how he came to believe a racist conspiracy theory and then recorded himself driving to a supermarket on Jefferson Avenue and carrying out the attack.
The man told Lewis he was going camping upon leaving the Tops, and Lewis suggested Lewiston or Niagara Falls.
The man asked if Lewis had ever been to the Falls and Lewis said he had many times.
Before walking to his car, the man asked Lewis one final question: “He said, ‘Are you gonna be here tomorrow?’ ”
Lewis replied that he would, at 5 p.m.
The shooter showed up at 2:30 p.m.