From the '.22-Caliber Killer' to the Tops massacre, historic hate crimes in Buffalo
"It's a repeat," the former prosecutor said.
When former county prosecutor Edward Cosgrove initially heard of the racially motivated mass shooting at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo that left 10 people dead, he said his mind raced back more than four decades to when he led the hunt for another gun-wielding racist killer who terrorized the city for months.
Cosgrove told ABC News he instantly recognized the eerie parallels between the May 2022 massacre by a white man authorities said sought to kill Black people, and the serial hate killings committed in 1980 by Joseph Christopher, a white Buffalo resident dubbed the ".22-Caliber Killer." Even the location of Christopher's first slaying was similar -- the parking lot of a Tops store.
"It's a repeat. If you want to take the totality of the circumstances, it's a repeat of what happened in '80," the 88-year-old Cosgrove said.
'My thoughts went back to that'
Payton Gendron, the 19-year-old gunman in the May 14 supermarket shooting, is to be sentenced on Wednesday to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He pleaded guilty in November to 15 charges, including murder, attempted murder and domestic terrorism motivated by hate.
In addition to the state case, he is facing hate and domestic terrorism charges in federal court. His attorneys said he might consider pleading guilty if prosecutors agree not to pursue the death penalty.
When Cosgrove learned from FBI sources that the Tops attack was racially motivated, he said he thought of Christopher's killing spree and the pain it inflicted on Buffalo's Black community -- a sentiment many of the city's Black residents told ABC News they experienced in the aftermath of last year's mass shooting.
"Yes, my thoughts went back to that. I understood how terrible it was, and how unfortunate it was," said Cosgrove, whose nephew is John Flynn, the current Erie County District Attorney, whose office is prosecuting Gendron.
Cosgrove was the Erie County District Attorney when Christopher began his killing rampage in a parking lot of a Tops store on Genesee Street, several miles from the east side Tops market where Gendron committed mass murder, live streaming part of the attack online.
On Sept. 22, 1980, the 24-year-old Christopher walked up to a car in the parking lot and shot 14-year-old Glenn Dunn, who was Black, in the head without warning. Over the next 36 hours, Christopher is alleged to have fatally shot three more Black people, 32-year-old Harold Green, 30-year-old Emmanuel Thomas and 43-year-old Joseph McCoy.
As the top law enforcement officer in Erie County and a former FBI agent under legendary bureau director J. Edgar Hoover, Cosgrove received special permission from then-New York Gov. Hugh Carey to lead the search for the serial killer.
As he came under tremendous pressure from Black politicians and community residents to quickly solve the case, Cosgrove said the elusive killer continued to strike, bludgeoning to death two Black Buffalo-area cab drivers -- whose hearts were carved out of their bodies -- and fatally stabbing another Black man to death in Rochester, New York.
Four killings investigators attributed to Christopher occurred in New York City. In November 1980, Christopher enlisted in the U.S. Army and was stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. While on a Christmas furlough in New York City, he allegedly stabbed to death three Black men and one Hispanic man and attacked two other Black men in the span of two days.
Army private arrested
Imprisoned in April 1981 in the stockade at Fort Benning for committing an unprovoked knife attack on a Black soldier, Christopher bragged to a staff nurse that he killed 13 people in Buffalo and throughout New York, shooting some with a .22-caliber sawed-off rifle. A few days later, he told another nurse about the killings, adding all of his victims were non-white males.
Military officials relayed Christopher's murderous claims to Cosgrove and his team of investigators.
Cosgrove recalled going to Christopher's home and speaking to his mother, a nurse at a local Catholic hospital.
"I'll never forget that. She was a nice woman," Cosgrove said. "I asked her if I could come in the house and sit down at her kitchen table. She invited me in. She knew who I was and I told her that I was going to have to search her house, that I have police officers out on the street."
During the search of the home and a family hunting cabin, police recovered .22-caliber bullets and the sawed-off barrel of a .22-caliber rifle, linking Christopher directly to the first three homicides he committed. Cosgrove said that while there was ample evidence to charge Christopher with the other homicides, the evidence was the strongest in the killings of the first three victims, partly because of the .22-caliber shell casings recovered at the crime scenes, but mostly because he didn't want to drag all of the victim's loved ones through the trial, where graphic evidence was presented.
In total, law enforcement officials suspect Christopher killed 12 people, shooting four and stabbing the rest. Seven other Black men who were allegedly attacked by Christopher survived.
Witness speaks out
When police first started searching for the ".22 Caliber Killer," a big break came from witness Madona Gorney. Gorney described a white man she encountered acting strange and sitting outside the Tops store moments before the first victim, Dunn, was fatally shot.
Months later, Gorney said she identified Christopher in a police lineup and testified against him at his two trials.
"All I was able to do was place him at Tops supermarket with the first murder. I didn't see him do anything, but I was able to place him at the spot," the 70-year-old Gorney, who now lives in Florida, told ABC News. "Of course, it's not something I'd want to do again, but if I had to I would. I wouldn't think twice about it. I've never regretted it."
Gorney, who is white, recalled the backlash she said she received for testifying against Christopher.
"I had a white friend who stopped speaking to me because I was testifying against a white man," she said. "A neighbor, she got all over me. She thought I was just terrible and told me, 'How can you do that?'"
Christopher was convicted in 1982 for the murders of his first three victims and sentenced to life in prison. His conviction was later overturned on appeal and a second trial in 1987 ended with his conviction again. He died in prison in 1993 from male breast cancer at age 37.
Contrast in responses
Charley Fisher III, a former Buffalo at-large councilman, said Christopher's reign of terror didn't seem to evoke the "kind of strong reaction from city officials that it should have."
While a few members of the Buffalo Common Council, the equivalent of a city council, issued statements decrying the 1980 killings, Fisher said there "wasn't the kind of will and commitment to stamp out white supremacy."
In contrast, every member of the common council condemned the Tops shooting in May, led by the city's first Black mayor, Byron Brown. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul posted on social media on the day of the shooting: "We must confront the threat that white supremacism poses to our society head-on." President Joe Biden traveled to Buffalo and met with loved ones of those killed and Vice President Kamala Harris attended the funeral of one of the victims.
But Cosgrove said he remembers community residents, both Black and white, rising up against racism in 1980 and how hundreds gathered for a unity rally on the steps of City Hall.
"It should be no surprise to anybody that knows western New York, that back in '80 and '81, we did what we had to do to get well again, and this community will do it again," Cosgrove said. "Are we healed yet? I don't think so. But we will be as time goes on."
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