A retired Buffalo police officer who was working security at the supermarket where a gunman opened fire Saturday is being hailed as a hero for confronting and firing upon the suspect before being fatally shot.
Aaron Salter Jr. was among the 10 people killed in the attack, which is being investigated as a racially motivated hate crime. Almost all those killed or injured were Black, including Salter.
Officials say the 55-year-old security guard fired his gun multiple times at the attacker and struck his body armour at least once. The gunman was unharmed and returned fire, killing Salter, according to police.
“He’s a true hero,” Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia said Sunday. “There could have been more victims if not for his actions.”
U.S. President Joe Biden also praised Salter’s bravery during an event at the White House on Monday honouring police and other public safety officers.
Salter “gave his life trying to save others,” Biden said.
Payton Gendron, 18, was arrested at the supermarket and charged with murder. He has pleaded not guilty.
Those who knew Salter have told local media his goal during his 30 years as a police officer in Buffalo was to protect his community. That impulse continued even after he retired from the force in 2018, they said.
“Aaron was a great individual and I know in his heart he wanted to save as many people as he could,” Scott Escobar, a retired Buffalo police officer who worked alongside Salter for several years in the traffic division, told local NBC affiliate WGRZ.
“It didn’t surprise me to hear he engaged the guy right away and tried to stop him … he was the kind of guy that would lay down his life like that and protect his community.”
Kimberly Beaty, the former deputy commissioner of the Buffalo Police Department who currently leads campus safety at Canisius College, suggested to WGRZ that Salter didn’t need to take the security job, but did so in order to keep helping people.
“Surviving a job in law enforcement and making it to retirement is a big deal for you and your family because they expect you can ride it out now and enjoy your life,” she said. “And then you have people who want to continue to work in the spirit of their community and that’s what Aaron Salter was doing.”
Customers said Salter knew shoppers at the Tops Friendly Market by name and was a beloved figure in the predominantly Black neighbourhood.
Salter, who applied to become a police officer out of high school in the late 1980s, was also no stranger to confronting dangerous situations.
He’s quoted in a 1996 Buffalo News article as one of two police officers who responded to an armed robbery and had a shotgun pointed at them by one of the suspects.
“My first reaction was to duck,” Salter was quoted as saying. “I don’t enjoy looking down the barrel of a shotgun, and if it hadn’t been for my partner shooting first, it would have been a golden opportunity to shoot us. My partner probably saved us.”
Salter is also listed as an educator with Buffalo Public Schools from 2008 to 2011, where he worked as a substitute teacher.
But it appears his true passion was as an amateur scientist and inventor. He spent years working on a car engine that could run on water in an effort to limit gasoline use, splitting the molecules with electricity to isolate hydrogen for energy.
“He was very passionate about this,” Steven Malkowski, a friend and retired Buffalo police officer who served as Salter’s supervisor, told the Buffalo News.
“He was trying to contact people who could help him with production on this. I’m not a mechanical guy, but he had it all laid out.
A 2015 video highlighting Salter’s company, AWS Hydrogen Technologies, gives a tour of his custom pickup truck that uses the hydrogen-electrolysis-powered engine prototype he developed.
In another video from the same year, Salter gives an interview where he describes his commitment to green energy, including a solar panel array he installed to heat his home.
He said he was hoping to partner with a company that could make his water-powered engine a reality for vehicles, generators and even boats and motorhomes.
“I’m a Buffalo police officer and I make a nice salary, but there’s no way I can push forward a whole industry on this salary,” he said.
“This is my contribution.”
Salter leaves behind a wife and three children who have largely avoided interviews.
His son, Aaron Salter III, told the Daily Beast shortly after the shooting on Saturday that his father’s death was “a shock,” while also calling him “a hero.”
— with files from Global News’ Mike Drolet and the Associated Press