BUFFALO, N.Y. — Ruth Whitfield, 86, was strong, independent and spiritual. On May 14, 2022, she visited her husband at a Buffalo nursing home and then went to Tops Friendly Market on Jefferson Avenue.
Her health wasn't the best, according to her son, she had a debilitating back issue, "but she powered on," said her son Garnell Whitfield.
Whitfield, a retired Buffalo fire commissioner has seen his share of crime scenes, but this one was extremely personal.
"I got a call from my wife's family member alerting us to something going on at Tops," he said. After seeing nothing on the news at the moment, he made phone calls to relatives who frequent the store, including his mother. "Finally I just told my wife, I'm going to check on my mom, she wasn't answering the phone."
He walked the perimeter of the store, looking for his mother's vehicle. "
"I could just barely see the top of a black car," he said. He told officials that his mother's car would have "handwritten signs in the window, saying god is my co-pilot, a Bills cap in the window," and items she would pick up at a thrift store.
He learned she was not among those evacuated. Ruth Whitfield was one of the 10 black people killed.
She was inside, close to the front of the store.
"Nobody deserved that, certainly not her," he said wiping tears from his eyes.
Whitfield has been outspoken and staunch advocate for change to prevent such tragedies from happening again.
When asked by Channel 2's Claudine Ewing where he gets the strength to fight against hate and violence, he said "I don't know if I call it strength, it's just a natural reaction. For every action, there's an equal, but opposite reaction."
He's been visible in Washington with the President of the United States. The Vice President spoke at his mother's funeral.
"I've been to the gun legislation rallies with the different groups in DC and around and lobbying for gun legislation, gun reform and different things. The passed bills, inclusive of mental health, support and things like that which are all good things, I support all that stuff."
"At the end of the day, we've got to call it what it is and that is white supremacy."
An 18-year-old has been charged with murder and could face the death penalty. He's been indicted on federal hate and firearm charges. According to federal documents, the teen gunman had visited the supermarket and became familiar with the store and its layout and noted the number of black people in and around the store.
Whitfield and the other families have filed lawsuits.
"Our goal is to make sure that no stone is left unturned. You know, whether it's the parents, whether it's social media, whether it's the gun manufacturers. Everything that drove him to do what he did, everything that was used to radicalize him. Every piece of it has to be uncovered and held accountable," Whitfield said.
The supermarket has reopened, Whitfield has not been there. "I've not walked on the grounds of Tops. I went and parked across the street."
His father is missing his wife of close to 68-years.
Whitfield plans to continue to speak out against injustice that cripples race relations.
What he and his siblings and relatives want more than anything is to see Mrs. Ruth Whitfield again.