S.C. church massacre sparks hate crime probe
Charleston, S.C. — In his Facebook profile photo, Dylann Storm Roof's look is glum and menacing; his jacket bears emblems popular with white supremacists.
The 21-year-old suspect in a deadly mass shooting at a historic black church in South Carolina wears a dark jacket marked with the flags of two African countries when they were ruled by whites, one from apartheid-era South Africa and the other from Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
On Thursday, Roof was arrested in connection with the deaths of nine people after allegedly opening fire during a weekly Bible study group at Charleston's Emanuel AME Church on Wednesday night in what is being investigated as a hate crime.
Reached by phone Thursday afternoon, Roof's uncle Carson Cowles wouldn't go into details about his nephew or confirm what he'd told news outlets about the young man receiving a .45-caliber gun for his 21st birthday in April.
Cowles said he feels "blindsided" and is "still trying to deal with all of this."
"I've done said everything I can say. … I'm still trying to put this all together," Cowles said. "My family is devastated."
Following a two-state manhunt, Roof was taken into custody during a traffic stop in Shelby, N.C., more than 200 miles from Charleston. A tip from a citizen led to the arrest.
Little is known of Roof's background, and authorities on Thursday were scrambling to sketch out a profile of a young man who had a criminal record.
"A terrible human being is now in custody," Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said of Roof at the announcement of his arrest. "We don't let people like this get away with a dastardly deed like this."
State court records for Roof as an adult show a misdemeanor drug case from March that was pending against him, and a misdemeanor trespassing charge from April. Authorities had no immediate details. As for any earlier offenses, juvenile records are generally sealed in South Carolina.
Court records list no attorney for him.
Charleston police and FBI officials said that a man reportedly wearing a wig, phony glasses and a heavy sweatshirt, even though it was an extremely warm day, walked into the Wednesday evening Bible study class about 8 p.m. and sat for more than an hour.
He appeared to be carrying a small backpack over his right shoulder that could have contained a weapon and ammunition, police said.
About 9 p.m., the man suddenly rose to his feet and the church, where blacks have worshipped since long before the Civil War, erupted in violence.
"He stood up and was shouting and saying, 'I have to do this,' " a law enforcement official briefed on the shooting said of the shooter.
The gunman turned to the prayer service leader, the pastor of the church and a state senator, Clementa Pinckney, and pulled the trigger.
Then, officials say, he methodically kept firing, pausing only to reload.
The shooter then vanished, leaving behind eight dead. A ninth victim later died at a hospital.
Following the overnight manhunt, Roof was stopped by officers in North Carolina. Authorities say he was cooperative with the officer who detained him in the tiny town of Shelby. Roof later waived his right to extradition to South Carolina, where he was held pending a bond hearing.
Many who knew Roof are baffled that he is in custody for the racially tinged rampage.
"I never thought he'd do something like this," high school friend Antonio Metze said. "He had black friends."
In recent weeks, Roof reconnected with a childhood buddy he hadn't seen in five years and started railing about the Trayvon Martin case, about black people "taking over the world" and about the need for "the white race" to do something about it, the friend said Thursday.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Joseph Meek Jr. said he and Roof had been best friends in middle school but lost touch when Roof moved away about five years ago. The two reconnected a few weeks ago after Roof reached out to Meek on Facebook, Meek said.
Roof never talked about race years ago when they were friends, but recently made remarks out of the blue about the killing of unarmed black 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida and the riots in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, Meek said.
"He said blacks were taking over the world. Someone needed to do something about it for the white race," Meek said, adding that the friends were getting drunk on vodka. "He said he wanted segregation between whites and blacks. I said, 'That's not the way it should be.' But he kept talking about it."
Meeks said Roof also told him that he had used birthday money from his parents to buy a gun and that he had "a plan." He didn't elaborate on what it was, but Meeks said he was worried — and said he knew Roof had the "Glock" — a .45 caliber pistol — in the trunk of his car.
Meek said he took the gun from the trunk of Roof's car and hid it in his house, just in case.
"I didn't think he would do anything," he said.
But the next day, when Roof was sober, he gave it back.
Meek said that when he woke up Wednesday morning, Roof was at his house, sleeping in his car outside. Later that day, Roof dropped Meek off at a lake with his brother Jacob, but Roof hated the outdoors and decided he would rather go see a movie.
Jacob said that when he got in the car, Roof told him he should be careful moving his backpack in the car because of the "magazines."
Jacob said he thought Roof was referring to periodicals, not the devices that store ammunition.
"Now it all makes sense," he said.
Meek said he saw Roof on Wednesday morning but didn't see his friend again until a surveillance-camera image of a young man with a soup-bowl haircut was broadcast on television Thursday morning. Meek said he didn't think twice about picking up the phone and calling authorities.
"I didn't THINK it was him. I KNEW it was him," Meek said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights group that tracks hate organizations and extremists, said it was not aware of Roof before the rampage. And some other friends interviewed said they did not know him to be racist.
Charleston's police chief wouldn't discuss a motive for the shootings. Mayor Riley called it "pure, pure concentrated evil." Stunned community leaders and politicians condemned the attack and Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the Justice Department has begun a hate crime investigation.
President Barack Obama, who personally knew Pinckney, said these shootings have to stop.
"At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries," Obama said.
The other victims were Cynthia Hurd, 54; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Myra Thompson, 59; Ethel Lance, 70; Susie Jackson, 87; and the Revs. DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49; Sharonda Singleton, 45; and Daniel Simmons Sr., 74.
Jackson's niece Cynthia Taylor said she spoke with one of the survivors of the shooting. She said Felecia Sanders told her she played dead while lying on top of her granddaughter to protect her, and that's how she made it out of the church alive.
Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday the country has to face "hard truths" about guns and race in the wake of the South Carolina shooting.
"How many innocent people in our country, from little children to church members to movie theater attendees, how many people do we need to see cut down before we act?" the Democratic presidential candidate said during a speech in Las Vegas, alluding to mass shootings in a Connecticut elementary school and Colorado movie theater.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush had planned to campaign in Charleston on Thursday, but he canceled his event in the wake of the attack.
"Our hearts are broken at the senseless loss of life," Bush said in a statement. "Our prayers are for the community that has lost its pastor and a brave leader. May the families and the city of Charleston be lifted up by the prayers of our entire nation."
Roof's Facebook page says he attended White Knoll High School in Lexington, S.C. Records from the Lexington school district indicate that he repeated ninth grade and then left the school in February 2010.
Meek said Roof's mother and her boyfriend live in Lexington, and his father lives in Columbia.
Roof has about 80 Facebook friends, many of them African-American. One of them, Derrick D. Gutta Pearson, posted about waking up to find 15 friend requests, all asking about Roof. He advised anyone who saw Roof to call the authorities.
"It's obvious lives do not matter to him," Pearson posted.
Associated Press contributed.
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