Grief, Vengeance and a Crime Too Terrible to Forgive
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If Barbara Massey-Mapps had her way, she would kill the man who murdered her sister herself. Her desire is neither secret nor shameful — she’ll tell anybody who asks. Some days, she thinks about gluing his eyes open and putting him in front of a mirror, so that her face is the last thing he sees when she shoots him in the back of the head. Other days, she wants him to be sentenced to the electric chair, his death broadcast live on TV. Sitting in court, she thinks to herself: How can I get past the cops guarding him before they catch me? She daydreams about clasping her hands — the same hands that weeded her sister’s garden, that painted her sister’s bedroom walls — around the killer’s neck so tightly that she leaves fingerprints in his skin, branding him with her rage.
“My mind is like, I’ll kill someone, and I’m not like that,” Barbara told me at a restaurant the first time we met, eight weeks after her sister was murdered. She spoke plainly, though her words were shrouded in a painful acceptance, as if she were listing symptoms instead of emotions. “There’s an anger that I never knew I could have in me.”
Her sister, Katherine Massey, was one of 10 people murdered by a 19-year-old white supremacist in a Buffalo shooting last spring. He spent months plotting the massacre, researching nearby towns with the largest Black populations, then neighborhoods with the highest concentration of Black residents. Once he settled on a Tops Friendly Markets grocery store, he made reconnaissance missions, drawing maps of the store’s interior and keeping tallies of how many Black people were shopping at a given time. He wanted to murder as many as he could.
On May 14, 2022, he made the three-and-a-half-hour drive from his home in Conklin, N.Y., to Buffalo, and with a camera strapped to his head, livestreaming, he killed Kat and the others. It took just over two minutes. Barbara had to identify Kat by her hands. Barbara, 65, sat with her nieces Adrienne and Dawn in a pleather booth at a LongHorn Steakhouse. Petite and gracious, she wore transition lenses, and her hair was in neat cornrows, edges covered with a bandanna. When her phone rang during lunch, an unsaved number, she apologized for picking it up. “We have to answer phone calls like this because we don’t know who they are,” she explained. I could hear the caller telling Barbara about a new interview request, from a television station. She sounded weary as she accepted.
“We got a schedule now, and I’m not at home, so I can’t tell you what’s going on, what day it is,” she told the caller. “If you call me back, I promise you, we’ll be there. Somebody will be there.”
After Barbara retired from a hardware store, she spent most of her newfound free time making improvements to her home. But since Kat was killed, she had devoted her days to her sister’s memory, equal parts job and duty. She revisited the worst day of her life over and over and over again, in conversation with the F.B.I., the Justice Department, the state and federal attorneys general, the district attorney, local politicians, the press.
Kat was the third sibling Barbara lost: The Massey five were down to just two, her and Warren. Warren was too shy to do any public speaking, and he couldn’t shake the guilt of having driven Kat to the grocery store that day. Kat didn’t leave behind a partner or children, so Barbara was in charge, pushing through her exhaustion by reminding herself that everything she was doing was only a fraction of what Kat would have done if their situations were reversed.
Barbara had already been to court four or five times, going back and forth between the state and federal systems. The state might give families a few days’ notice before they were asked to appear, she told me, maybe a week. The federal system gave them 24 hours. Because Barbara was retired, she could manage the workload more easily than others. Plenty of the victims’ family members couldn’t go to court at all or they stopped by before proceeding on to work, the face of the murderer fresh in their heads. “The worst time is when we gotta go see the maggot,” Barbara told me, of the frustrations her new life entailed. “That’s the nicest word I can come up with.”
Adrienne hadn’t left Barbara’s side for the past 10 days, and Dawn, after working 16-hour nursing shifts, always checked in to see how she could help. One of the victim-resource advocates seemed particularly understanding, so a few days earlier, Barbara asked when she could take a vacation.
“I need to go,” she said. Just two days. “I just have to go. I have to leave because it’s too much.” It wasn’t that she wanted a vacation or had some pressing thing she had to do; it was about getting a break from home, from her house a few doors down from her sister’s, the same street they grew up on, with the garden her parents planted vegetables in, the corners she and her siblings played on, the house she raised her family in. Cherry Street wasn’t just where she lived, it was who she was, the site of her entire life. This was the first time she had ever wanted to leave.
A sudden grief can snatch you by the ankles. Everything up goes down. At the restaurant, Barbara, Adrienne and Dawn tried to make sense of it all, forcing their minds to accept that Kat could be gone so suddenly when she wasn’t even sick, that people could have so much hate in their hearts for utter strangers. Adrienne wondered if so much of the hatred that white people felt was really discomfort about their history, but, she said, how can you ever expect to move past it if people want you to ignore it? “Don’t nobody give a [expletive] that white people came and took us and took over everything, and then you act like you own everything,” she said. Her voice started to crack.
Barbara said she mourned the past: the loss of human decency, the inability for parents to confidently send their children out to play safely. “It’s a sad world,” she told Adrienne and Dawn. “At least, when we were growing up, even though it was ugly, we didn’t know it.”
A mostly Black crowd of 100 people gathered together a few weeks later at a snug triangle of city-owned grass. It was a sweaty July morning, and their faces gleamed like brass. They had assembled for a street-naming ceremony: Katherine “Kat” Massey Way now runs alongside Inspiration Garden. The garden is only a few steps from the house that Kat grew up in. It had been neglected until the Cherry Street Block Club, basically Kat and some fancy-looking letterhead, wrote the city in protest. Kat’s neighborhood on the east side of Buffalo, known as the Fruit Belt, has been a Black neighborhood for a long time, which is most likely why, when the city needed to build a new highway in the 1950s, it was designed to slice right through Cherry Street. Warren, Kat and Barbara all lived on Cherry, their neat lawns and wide porches facing a sunken freeway.
The ceremony took place during what would have been Kat’s 73rd-birthday weekend. Barbara was dressed in all black, except for a piece of adwinasa kente cloth wrapped around her temples and knotted at the base of her neck. It was the same print as the cloth draped over Kat’s coffin at the funeral, which cushioned Barbara as she hugged the closed coffin right before the pallbearers carried it away, putting her cheek to where her sister’s face had been.
Kat loved being Black. It wasn’t just an identity but a prize to be shown off, a winning lottery ticket of a life. She tried to wear a piece of kente cloth every day, and tied extra fabric around tree limbs in the neighborhood. A month before she was killed, she lobbied the city to engrave Akan symbols on the wall lining the freeway; placards describing the history and utility of adinkra and kente cloth stood in Inspiration Garden. In Kat’s honor, attendees wore kente caps, skirts and headbands; one of the few white people in attendance wiped at his brow with a kente-printed handkerchief. Guests ended their speeches with exclamations of “harambe,” Swahili for “all pull together,” Kat’s favorite greeting and goodbye.
Kat was the type to think not only that the world could be a better place but that she should be one of the stewards of that change. She wrote letters in protest when she saw objectionable things on TV; she wrote — on notecards or the pages of books — lessons she wanted her family members to absorb, often highlighted for emphasis; she wrote editorials for the local paper. About a year before her death, she wrote an editorial in The Buffalo News arguing that stronger federal oversight of guns would have resounding benefits at the local level. “There needs to be extensive federal action/legislation to address all aspects of this issue,” she wrote. “Current pursued remedies mainly inspired by mass killings — namely, universal background checks and banning assault weapons — essentially exclude the sources of our city’s gun problems.” The editorial was cited in nearly every obituary about her, a cruel coincidence.
At the street-naming ceremony, Barbara’s face was slick with grief, though she called them happy tears. A representative from the Department of Transportation told her that the city would provide free services to design and maintain the garden, anything the family wanted. Barbara had been cutting the grass herself since she was 19. She offered to continue, but the city employee waved her off. “We don’t want you to keep going through a lawnmower every year,” he said.
Back at the houses after the ceremony, people splayed across the porches, passing sweaty beer bottles and Solo cups of Hennessy, cigarette smoke filling in the pauses between words. Barbara remembered the first cigarette she and Warren shared after Kat died. Warren joked that at least they didn’t have to look over their shoulders for their disapproving older sister. “You couldn’t pay me and my brother to smoke a cigarette in front of my sister,” Barbara said. “I’d chew it up before I’d do that.”
Kat and Barbara’s relationship was truly forged in adulthood. The women were eight years apart. In Barbara’s childhood memories, Kat is mostly busy: at school, traveling a little, off on another shore. It wasn’t until she was an adult that she learned that Kat and their brother Junior were the ones paying for the younger kids’ Christmas gifts every year. Because of Kat, her siblings had the first color TV on the block.
Though the siblings all stayed close to their hometown for most of their adult lives, Kat lived a mile away and walked over to Cherry Street every weekend. Kat and Patti, another sister, even worked at the same company, Blue Cross Blue Shield. After Patti died of cancer in 2010, Kat retired early, saying she couldn’t take not seeing her sister in the elevator anymore. Five years later, after her own health scare, Kat moved back onto the block, into the house she grew up in. The afternoon of the ceremony, Barbara led a handful of women into Kat’s house, friends and cousins who came for the street-naming. It was the fifth time she had come by since Kat died. The task of maintaining her sister’s home, even if no one was in it, never left Barbara’s to-do list. The grass needed to be cut, the interior needed dusting. Barbara announced herself whenever she entered; otherwise, she would feel as if she were intruding.
The house had just been remodeled and was decorated, in Kat’s parlance, with all the same “flavor”: Everything was either gray, black or white. Last time she was there, Barbara cleared the fridge of all the tiny leftovers that Kat would wrap up — a few sausages, two turkey burgers — but the freezer was still full.
Barbara settled in the living room, surrounded by the women who had been helping her through the past few weeks: Adrienne and Sharon, who used to work with Kat, and who helped Barbara navigate paperwork; and Cousin Tee, who stitched Barbara back up after an insurance representative asked Barbara how her sister died.
Her thoughts turned to the hearings. She told the women that the worst part of the situation was the shooter’s complete lack of remorse. He hadn’t apologized. It incensed and offended her. This man — this child, really — had stolen the lives of 10 people; he had gone from imagining to executing, and he still couldn’t see the error of his ways. (At one point during his rampage, the shooter trained his gun on a person whom he hadn’t realized was white. Once he did, he apologized and moved on.)
These women understood her anger, and they felt that she had a right to it. A few weeks earlier, Barbara received a phone call from an F.B.I. agent. The woman sounded kind when she warned Barbara that tying up their case would take a while.
“I don’t understand why it’s going to be a while — shoot him and call it a day,” someone said in response. “Just get it over with.” Another friend said that she hoped that, in prison, he would suffer an eternity surrounded by the very sorts of people he hated. (He will most likely be placed in protective custody.) Barbara said she just wanted to shoot him herself.
The original judge on the federal case had tried to discourage the families from seeking the death penalty, Barbara said, citing the enormous cost it would impose on taxpayers. She told him she didn’t care if they needed a GoFundMe; she wanted the death penalty. Barbara had been so angry after that hearing — from that whittling down of her sister’s life into a financial inconvenience — that she and her nephew walked the mile and a half home, just to let the steam out of their bodies. She had a drink for the first time in years.
Barbara opened a large black trunk that Kat kept in the living room. It was filled with handsome leather photo albums, embossed with gold plaques with the dates and volumes (“2020, Book 3”) on the covers. The photographs were ones Kat had taken on her phone, the sort you don’t print until there’s a 15-cent photo-printing day at the Walgreens. There were pictures of meals at Barbara’s house, everyone crammed into her kitchen; there were countless images of clouds, annotated with sticky notes: “Troubled clouds, ready to rumble.” In the winter, Kat would take photos of her “smile piles” — smiley faces she drew in the snow, when she felt as if she had been cooped up inside too long — and text them to friends with the hope of a good day. The most recent prints were from April 12 and 13, about a month before Kat was murdered. They were loose, still in the Walgreens envelope.
“She didn’t get a chance to do these,” Barbara said. She handed out the photos. Kat had been planning her garden for the upcoming season, so she took photos of the land, “before” shots.
Barbara cradled one of the albums, slowly turning the pages. “Oh, here go Kat,” she said softly. She ran her finger over Kat’s face. “That’s my sister.”
Thing is, Kat knew she wouldn’t be around for much longer. In January 2020, she wrote her family a letter, the “Dear” in “Dear Family” circled and underlined four times. “I’m writing this not due to any doctor giving me bad news of my having a life-ending disease,” she began. “But, since two people have told me I look just like Ma, at two different times, I take that as a sign my time here is ending.” Patti and Junior also started to take on their mother’s face before they passed. Kat knew “that showed she was with them and now she’s with me.”
The letter is only two pages long, handwritten in elegant cursive. An elder sister to the end, she left instructions and issued decrees: Warren and Barbara should still do their over-coffee thing. “I don’t know why Patti had to leave first. But my prayers are for me to be the next to go, I’m overdue. I told Patti don’t let me be a wimp when it’s my time, and I believe she will do so.” This next part is underlined, too: “And don’t none of you be wimps either!!”
A neighbor was the one who told Barbara that there had been a shooting at the grocery store. Barbara had been mowing her sister’s lawn. Kat had developed rheumatoid arthritis and had started moving a lot slower. When she danced — which she did often, her pointer finger up in the air — she grooved so slowly that the family joked that it took her half an hour to rotate just once. Barbara and Warren pitched in with helping Kat around the house or driving her around. Once a week, they swapped off taking Kat to the grocery store: Barbara always took her to the Tops Friendly Market on Elmwood, but Warren took her to the one on Jefferson, which Kat preferred. That day was Warren’s turn to drive.
The family stood vigil outside the grocery store for more than eight hours, waiting for news about Kat. Barbara asked any police officer she saw: Could they just let her know if Katherine Massey was OK? Couldn’t be more than 110 pounds, you’d know her when you saw her. She begged them to let her go inside. She didn’t yet know how bad it was — that her sister had been shot twice in the back of the head with an assault rifle, or that her family wouldn’t be able to recover Kat’s personal effects because they were full of blood, that the mortician would have to work to such a degree on reconstructing her sister’s head that he would say it felt as if he were playing God. All Barbara knew that day was that her sister was inside that grocery store by herself.
Now, when she thinks about the last seconds of her sister’s life, Barbara prays that, at the very least, Kat didn’t see anything going on around her. What Barbara does know, what slips into her head as the night unfolds into morning, when Kat used to call just to say hello, is that her sister couldn’t run.
Barbara endured the first birthday weekend without her sister, the first time not seeing Kat wear her novelty glasses in the shape of her new age; the first Halloween, one of Kat’s favorite holidays, without her getting all dressed up for the kids. Barbara’s calendar filled up. Her pastors had encouraged her and the family to participate in every opportunity to talk about Kat, both as advocacy and as a kind of therapy, to help them process their grief. For months, Barbara dedicated roughly two days a week to Kat: meetings, interviews, hearings, drudgery. Even when her life was her own, her days free of bureaucracy and lawyers, she still returned home knowing that her sister was no longer within an arm’s reach.
John Elmore, one of her lawyers, hoped he could help her get some recompense for her pain. He was still waiting at the start of November to learn whether Gov. Kathy Hochul would enact Bill S74A, or the Grieving Families Act. Among other things, the legislation would allow emotional distress to be considered as part of a judgment in a wrongful-death lawsuit. Currently, in New York State, family members of victims who died because of negligence or a crime can be compensated based on only two metrics: conscious pain and suffering of the deceased, and economic loss. (Only one other state, Alabama, doesn’t recognize emotional damages.) In the driest interpretation, the lives lost at Tops might qualify as losses of little financial value: Many of the victims were retired and not actively generating income, and, because of the ungodly force a shot from an assault rifle can have on a body, their deaths were more-or-less instant, with no suffering endured. If the G.F.A. passed, Elmore said, “the impact of going to a funeral, of having sleepless nights, of missing holidays and weddings and births — all of that is testimony that a jury would hear.”
Left unsaid by Elmore was the quality of Barbara’s days since Kat died, the dull, plodding march of time that defined her life now. Later that month, on a bitter winter morning, Barbara returned to the Erie County Court for the plea hearing. Adrienne and Dawn flanked her, the three women crammed into a snug corridor with the other families and their legal teams, everyone dressed as if for a funeral. Barbara told me that her cousin Teresa suddenly needed surgery. Teresa was one of her main pillars of strength — she flew into Buffalo from Chicago the day after Kat’s murder and didn’t leave Barbara’s side for more than a week. It was too much. Barbara stood in line quietly and restlessly, as tight as a rubber band. Once in the courtroom, she changed her seat three times, as if she wanted the best view.
‘You drive 200 miles to Buffalo — you don’t know any Black people.’
The shooter shuffled in, escorted by prison guards, his head facing the ground. The room was silent. Another victim’s family member, a woman in pink, pulled her shirt over her mouth, and began nodding vigorously, as if she were trying to shake him from her vision. The judge asked whether the killer understood that his guilty plea — including 10 counts of first-degree murder, three counts of attempted murder, a weapons possession charge and a count of a domestic act of terrorism motivated by hate — meant a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the chance of parole. His voice low and nonchalant, almost irritated, the shooter said he did. (His federal charges could result in the death penalty.)
Afterward, Barbara was livid, “I just want him gone,” she told Adrienne. It was her plea. “I can’t sleep no more.” Adrienne promised to get something to help.
“I’ve got to get better,” Barbara said, her voice cracking. She was disappointed in herself, as if she was letting her sister down. “I can’t be strong. You know what Kat would do: be strong.”
The proceedings took a holiday break. In January, Hochul vetoed the Grieving Families Act, and Barbara was admitted to the hospital three times. She had shingles. Each time, she was told it was because of stress; eventually, the doctors asked what could be causing her so much strain. She said didn’t want to talk about it.
The February night before the sentencing hearing, during which the survivors of the victims could finally address the shooter, Barbara lay awake. She read her sister’s “Dear Family” letter again and asked God to give her the strength to speak her mind. Then she realized she would probably have some un-Christian things to say — “and you can’t tell God all that stuff” — so she summoned her sisters, asking Patti and Kat for strength, too.
In the letter, Kat had written a personal directive to Barbara. Maybe it was an afterthought: It was written in letters half the size of everything else, smushed into an underhang of one of her sentences. But she insisted: “Barb, be tough!! (That’s an order!!)” Those words were all she needed.
A few hours later, Barbara took her place in line in the courtroom. Twenty or so other people were also waiting to approach the lectern. The shooter sat near the front of the room, to the right of the judge’s bench, in a bright orange jumpsuit and thin wire-rimmed glasses. Most of the testimonies were addressed facing the judge, with an occasional gesture made to the killer. Some of the families were able to excavate some forgiveness from their grief. One man hoped that the shooter would apologize, just to offer the families some relief; another said that he had to forgive him, for the sake of the Black community. The assembled speakers called him a coward, a racist; some hoped he didn’t get the death penalty, so that he would be forced to contend with his crimes every day for the remainder of his long, useless life. One mother, sobbing, said she wasn’t sure she could ever enjoy a beautiful spring day again.
Waiting in line, Barbara grew increasingly anxious. She couldn’t wait any longer. “I need to go,” she said, making her way to the front of the line. “I’m not going to be nice.” Barbara stood a few steps away from the lectern and faced the shooter head-on. “You killed my sister,” she told him.
As she described Kat, her voice started to wobble. Earlier that week, Barbara looked up the census information for the shooter’s hometown Conklin, just as he had done for hers: She wanted to know “what had made this child sick.” Conklin was awash in white people, she noted, a safe haven for a white supremacist. “You drive 200 miles to Buffalo — you don’t know any Black people.” She pointed her finger at him like she wished a bullet were in it. “You don’t know an Indian, a Mexican, nobody, and your punk ass decided to come and kill my sister.”
She smacked her fists together. She was grateful that the police were there for protection, she said — for either her or the shooter, it was unclear. Her voice grew higher, her throat twisted tighter, the words harder to get out. Her son Damone had been behind her in line; he inched closer to her as she got more and more upset.
Again and again, Barbara had tried to understand the motivations for this massacre, to be able to wrap her mind around such heinousness, such filth. She understood hate on a personal level; she felt it herself, her sister’s killer looking her in the face, the blood rushing to his cheeks. But to hate a whole group of people? And come to find out you don’t even know them?
“You don’t know a damn thing about Black people! We’re human.” She clapped her hands. “We like our kids to go to good schools. We love our kids. We never go into no neighborhoods and take people out.”
Suddenly, Damone lunged toward the shooter. Chaos flitted around the room like a trapped bird: The guards rushed the shooter out of the room, the officers tried to subdue Damone, and as Barbara tried to reach for her son, viewers in the courtroom jumped out of their seats.
The fracas moved into the hallway, and the Massey family was asked to leave. “How dare you take him and you protect him?” a woman yelled outside the courtroom. “Cowards!”
A few hours later, at a news conference, Barbara looked serene and satisfied. She started to cry again only when reporters asked her about Damone, whom officers had released. She explained that he was just responding to her emotional intensity. He felt protective of his mother. As the officers took hold of her son, Barbara was afraid — that they would hurt him, that he would end up in jail — but not regretful. “I wish it was me.”
The next morning, Barbara had her regular coffee chat with Warren on the porch, as Kat had mandated. When they parted, Warren walked over to Inspiration Garden to talk to Kat, his daily ritual since she was murdered.
When I spoke to her a few hours later, she sounded rested, as serene as she had at the news conference. “I wanted him to know what he took away from us. Kat was somebody. Kat is somebody. Kat is precious to us, and he took that away from us. There’s no forgiveness for that. Ever.”
How could she forgive, when the video of her sister’s murder had been shared more than 1,000 times the previous day? Or when her grandson started screaming and crying when she accidentally drove past Tops recently? Forgiveness would mean that she thought she could heal from all of this, and she knew she never would. Barbara and Patti had been so close that the family worried Barbara might not recover from losing her. But at least Patti wasn’t murdered, at least Barbara hadn’t been robbed. Losing a sister like this was so much worse.
But now Barbara was ready to honor Kat in other ways. There was a homeless shelter that Kat had started to work with, so Barbara was planning on attending the next meeting to pick up where her sister left off. Any time a family member died, Kat would plant a tree in their honor. Barbara had just planted three weeping willows for Kat. “I’m just doing the things my sister would like,” she said.
The state sentencing was finally over, but there had been another meeting that morning, something for the federal courts, similar to the previous day’s proceedings. When the lawyers called to ask Barbara if she wanted to attend, for the very first time, she declined. Today, she said, was the best she had felt since the day before Kat died.
So she didn’t really want to see him, no. She needed a break.
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