Sean Kirst: A grieving son at the Tops killer's sentencing: 'You shattered their lives' (2023)

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Wayne Jones tells a story that helps explain why he stood in front of a packed Erie County courtroom the other day, directly addressing the man who killed his mother in a racist mass murder last spring at a Tops supermarket.

That he found the presence to get up there at all goes straight back to the strength of his mom, Celestine Chaney.

Listen, Wayne said in a conversation afterward: If you want some classic childhood tales of Buffalo, he can provide them. His mother used to take him to Sattlers, a legendary department store on Broadway. His parents split up when he was little and it was him and his mom, with money always tight.

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Just wandering the store with her and admiring the toys could almost feel as good as bringing them home.

Wayne, a 49-year-old Army veteran, believes that feeling is shared by parallel generations throughout the city, which only underlines the madness of what happened at Tops.

Wayne's mom, in his childhood, did not have a car. Before she encountered the health crises that forced her to leave her job, she would wake up in the morning to get Wayne ready for school, then work evening shifts – for a long time as a seamstress at M. Wile, and later making caps at New Era.

Sean Kirst: A grieving son at the Tops killer's sentencing: 'You shattered their lives' (1)

She tended bar for a few dollars on the side, and Wayne recalls how glad she was one time for a tavern paycheck of $87– and how much they needed every cent. Mother and son often moved, with the one rule being that any apartment had to be close enough for Celestine to walk to the Broadway Market, where she loved to shop.

“Basically,” said Wayne, whose six kids are now without their grandmother, “it was just me and her, one strong woman.”

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He recalls how his mother would take him downtown on the bus to admire the big stores, and how he lived for the strawberry shortcake that figured into both how little or how much they really had, depending on how you see it.

Wayne will tell you how his grandparents, who escaped the Jim Crow cruelties of the South, settled into diligent routines familiar to Buffalo– even if, as the killer proved in his sheer cruelty, some can never see it.

Yet one story always returns to Wayne when he closes his eyes and thinks about his mom.

One afternoon, he was chased home from school by a bunch of kids who wanted to fight. He ran into the house and told his mother, who said: “You’re going back out there to fight, or you’re going to fight me.”

She meant it. She wanted him to stand up to what he feared. Wayne dutifully went outside and fought until he and another kid, both weary, had enough. More than 40 years later, he knows this:

That kid, now a man, is a lifelong friend who showed up at Celestine's funeral.

“Once I grew up and understood what she handled,” Wayne said of his mother, “it was a lot.”

Sean Kirst: A grieving son at the Tops killer's sentencing: 'You shattered their lives' (3)

Wednesday, voice raw with emotion, he spoke in court. He was only a few strides from a 19-year-old who drove for hours last spring, then walked into the Jefferson Avenue Tops in body armor on May 14– prepared as if for war to attack elders as they shopped. He murdered 10 African American women and men, while wounding three more people and traumatizing countless others.

The killer pleaded guilty to that racist massacre. Before Erie County Court Judge Susan Eagan sentenced him Wednesday to life in prison, grieving families had a chance to have their say, face to face.

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Sean Kirst: A grieving son at the Tops killer's sentencing: 'You shattered their lives' (4)

Every word – in loss and rage and sorrow – was like a wrapping pulled away from the vast wound. Wayne wore a cross around his neck that carried his mother’s image, and almost the first thing he did was to read the names now enshrined as an eternal Buffalo community:

Pearl Young. Ruth Whitfield. Andre Mackneil. Roberta Drury. Heyward Patterson. Aaron Salter. Geraldine Talley. Katherine Massey. Margus Morrison.

Celestine Chaney.

Wayne turned to look at the killer. Through a reference to the solemn, weeping women and men in the courtroom, Wayne's address was built around four words:

“You shattered their lives.”

He capsulized a story he would speak of at length a few nights later, how a beautiful family tradition– a quiet joy enshrined by struggle– became the act of chance leading to his mother’s death.

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When Wayne was young, monthly grocery shopping was a big deal, almost always leading to one treat: strawberry shortcake. Celestine would buy strawberries, then use sugar to crush them into a mash that settled in the fridge overnight. The next day, she would bring out whipped cream and make strawberry shortcake that no one who tasted it ever forgets.

For a kid who rarely received casual treats, it was the best thing on Earth.

A few years later, when Wayne was 12, he was with his mom when she collapsed, unconscious. Her life was threatened by the first of three brain aneurysms. Once, when Wayne was at school, he was called from class and told to brace himself: He needed to say goodbye to his silent mother in the hospital.

Celestine recovered. She seemed safely beyond that crisis when she learned she had breast cancer, leading to a marathon of chemotherapy. Once again, as Wayne marveled at her courage, she fought to the other side.

Last spring, not long after his mother turned 65, her sprawling family had a big Mother’s Day meal of ribs and salmon in her honor. That birthday carried symbolic triumph after so many setbacks. "She was on a victory tour," Wayne said.

Sean Kirst: A grieving son at the Tops killer's sentencing: 'You shattered their lives' (6)

Usually, on a Saturday afternoon, she would not have been at Tops. Usually, Wayne would take her on long mother-and-son shopping expeditions to PriceRite or Walmart or other spots where she could find a bargain. But on that particular day she needed shortcake cups for her specialty, and she joined her sister, JoAnn Daniels, for a quick in-and-out at Tops.

They were there when the shots began. Wayne learned with certainty that his mother had died when one of his stunned and sickened daughters sent him the video the killer posted live, an evil of such a scope that "I can't dwell on it or it would consume you," Wayne said.

In court, his voice filled with loss and disbelief as he directly addressed the man who unleashed such racist violence. Wayne spoke of the 21st century poison of the internet, contemplating how that hatred could be so eagerly embraced by someone with such minimal contact or knowledge of the Black community.

Sean Kirst: A grieving son at the Tops killer's sentencing: 'You shattered their lives' (7)

Wayne offered this conclusion– after months of sleepless nights– on what he sees as the ultimate sentence:

“I don’t wish the death penalty on you,” he said. “I wish they keep you alive, so you have to suffer with the thought of what you did for the rest of your life.”

Friday, two days past court, he said being there reflected the strength he saw in his mom. Wayne faces the lifetime mission of comforting children and grandchildren who will always wonder how someone could want you dead simply because of who you are, and the only response he knows is to keep telling the story.

His mother is that person waiting on a corner, in a Buffalo snowfall, for the bus to work. She is the person who will handle any shift at any hour to help her child, the one who withstands repeated health disasters to finally achieve the everyday peace of a 65-year-old grandmother, grateful for her family, who needs to make one quick and casual stop at the store.

"She always did what she had to do for us," Wayne said, a quality that multiplied by 10 exceeds all measure– which is the only way to even try to count just how much was lost at Tops.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Buffalo News. Email him at



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Sean Kirst


Born in Dunkirk, a son, grandson and great-grandson of Buffalonians, I've been an Upstate journalist for more than 48 years. As a kid, I learned quiet lives are often monumental. I still try to honor that simple lesson, as a columnist.

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