Aaron Salter Jr worked as a security guard at the Tops Friendly Market for roughly four years.
Law enforcement believes Salter pulled out his weapon to try to take down the gunman, identified by police as 18-year-old avowed white supremacist Payton Gendron, who was wearing body armor. Gendron then allegedly returned fire, killing the former officer.
Salter’s son told The Daily Beast that his father likely “saved some lives today. He’s a hero.”
Buffalo police chief Joseph Gramaglia called him “a hero in our eyes.”
Police say Gendron drove roughly three hours and 200 miles to commit a hate-fuelled killing spree. Thirteen people in total were shot. Among the victims, 11 were Black, including Salter. Authorities have not yet publicly identified the names of the victims.
Gendron was arraigned and charged with murder in the first degree, to which he pleaded not guilty.
The killings mark one of the deadliest racist massacres in recent American history, and the deadliest mass shooting in the US in 2022. It was the 198th mass shooting in the country this year, according to the Gun Violence Archive, which tracks shootings in the US.
In 1996, while serving with the Buffalo Police Department, Salter – who leaves behind three children – survived an incident in which a suspect pointed a shotgun in his face during a burglary, according to The Buffalo News.
“My first reaction was to duck,” he told the newspaper at the time. “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.”
Following his retirement, Salter appears to have been designing and building vehicles under a company called AWS Hydrogen Technologies, according to his LinkedIn profile.
“I’m always working on my vehicles and or my project of running engines on water for the last four years or so,” according to his LinkedIn page. “I would like to realize my dream of getting cars to run off of water using my newly discovered energy source some day.”
Retired Buffalo Fire Commissioner Garnell W Whitfield reported that his 86-year-old mother Ruth Whitfield was also among the victims.
“My mother taught us how to love unconditionally. That’s how she loved us completely,” Mr Whitfield told a Buffalo-area ABC News affiliate.
The mother of four was “the consummate mom,” Mr Whitfield told The Buffalo News. “My mother was a mother to the motherless. She was a blessing to all of us. She loved God and taught us to do the same thing.”
On Sunday morning, a crowd of mourners gathered outside the supermarket and urged officials to stamp out the hate that fuelled lethal violence.
“I want people to talk about Buffalo as the last place this ever happened,” Governor Kathy Hochul told True Bethel Baptist Church on Sunday morning. “An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us, because we are all God’s people.”