A 21-year-old white man accused of murdering nine people in a historic black South Carolina church makes his first court appearance. (Reuters)
CHARLESTON, S.C. — The gunman charged with killing nine people in an African American church was unrepentant during a confession to police, even after almost backing out of what he called his “mission” because church members were so nice to him, according to law enforcement officials and others briefed on the investigation.
Dylann Roof not only confessed to causing the Wednesday night carnage in Charleston, but said he wanted his actions known, said the law enforcement officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation is unfolding. They said Roof espoused strong anti-black views when questioned by officers.
But the 21-year-old also told police he had briefly reconsidered his plan during the time he spent quietly watching a Bible study group before opening fire, two people briefed on the investigation said. Roof “said he “almost didn’t go through with it because they were so nice to him” one of the people said, before concluding: “I had to complete my mission.”
As he methodically fired and reloaded several times, the person said, Roof called out: “You all are taking over our country. Y’all want something to pray about? I’ll give you something to pray about.”
Roof’s words added to an emerging portrait that suggests the 21-year-old was driven by runaway racial hatred in the attacks — unleashed after Roof spent nearly an hour watching the group before opening fire, authorities said.
Dylann Roof is in custody after police say he opened fire at a historic African American church in Charleston, SC. Here’s a look at the 21-year-old’s background, including recent arrests, and what authorities say happened inside the church. (Alice Li/The Washington Post)
Left dead were the church’s prominent pastor and eight other worshippers.
Authorities on Friday announced that Roof has been charged with nine counts of murder and possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime. He then appeared in court for an extraordinary bond hearing in which relatives of the dead, given the chance to confront him, instead offered him forgiveness and said they were praying for him.
Judge James B. Gosnell Jr. ordered Roof held without bond on the murder charges but set a $1 million bond on the firearm charge. It was unclear if prosecutors would seek the death penalty and if Roof had an attorney.
Meanwhile, a federal civil rights investigation into the attacks was underway, which authorities said will be conducted along with the state probe. Federal officials have described it as a hate crime investigation.
South Carolina’s governor urged her state’s prosecutors to seek the death penalty for the shootings inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the South’s oldest African American church. “We will absolutely will want him to have the death penalty,” Gov. Nikki Haley told NBC’s “Today” show.
Outpourings of sorrow and expressions of anger and disbelief have spilled from Charleston and across the country. In Charleston, a major prayer vigil was scheduled for later Friday as the city’s mayor, Joseph P. Riley Jr., called the slayings an act of “pure, pure concentrated evil.”
In Washington, a solemn President Obama voiced “sadness and anger” on Thursday and wondered what it would take to push lawmakers to tighten the nation’s gun laws. On a visit Friday to a U.S. military base in northern Italy, first lady Michelle Obama said she prays “for a community that I know is in pain.”
About the same time in front of the AME church in Charleston, three nuns in blue habits read a Bible passage amid a sidewalk piled high with flowers, wreaths and balloons.
That message of peace contrasted with what friends and law enforcement officials said was the profile of Roof coming to light piece by piece. It suggested a downward trajectory of racial suspicions, misguided rage andunsettling plots — which were expressed to others, but apparently never passed to authorities as warnings.
A one-time acquaintance of Roof’s recalled that the suspect would rant that “blacks were taking over the world” as the pair got drunk on vodka.
Roof railed that “someone needed to do something about it for the white race,” said the former friend, Joseph Meek Jr., the Associated Press reported.
Roof’s former roommate, Dalton Tyler, told ABC News that Roof seemed to have been plotting some kind of violence “for six months.”
“He said he wanted to start a civil war,” Tyler said. “He said he was going to do something like that and then kill himself.”
After a nearly 15-hour manhunt that ended when Roof’s car was spotted in North Carolina, the case now turns to questions that include how he obtained the weapon and why no one alerted authorities as Roof apparently sharpened his racial diatribes and threats.
A Snapchat video taken shortly before the shooting and obtained by Mashable.com appears to show a white man sitting with the black parishioners around a table in a church meeting room at Emanuel AME, one of the oldest black churches in the nation.
The man was offered a chance to join the discussion on the Scriptures, but declined. Shortly after, he opened fire.
Witnesses told authorities they never saw the man pull out the gun. Instead, they saw him start shooting, up close, targeting each victim with precision. The man took the time to reload the handgun “several times,” officials said.
Afterward, eight people lay dead and a ninth lay dying. Among the victims was the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, Emanuel AME’s charismatic pastor, who also served in the South Carolina Senate and once sponsored a resolution praising a high school senior for an award-winning speech in favor of tighter gun laws.
Authorities identified the other victims as the Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45, who is the mother of a Charleston Southern University student; Cynthia Hurd, 47, the manager of the St. Andrews Regional Library in Charleston; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; DePayne Middleton; Tywanza Sanders, 26; and Myra Thompson, 59. Daniel Simmons, 74, died at the hospital
Roof allegedly spared one woman, one law enforcement official said, so she could tell others what had happened.
When Roof was arrested — about 250 miles from Charleston — he had a Glock .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun that law enforcement officials said he had obtained in April, either receiving it as a birthday gift or buying it himself with birthday money. The gun was purchased legally, officials said.
A troubled loner who dropped out of school in ninth grade and had a history of small-time arrests, Roof maintained a Facebook page that seems to reflect his worldview. The profile picture shows him scowling in a wooded swamp, wearing a jacket with at least two conspicuous patches: the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and the former white-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
Charleston Police Chief Gregory Mullen said Roof “was cooperative with the officer who stopped him” near Shelby, N.C. He waived extradition to South Carolina and was flown back to Charleston late Thursday.
It was unclear why Roof fled to Shelby. His home in Eastover is near Columbia, South Carolina’s state capital, about 130 miles to the south, but his sister’s fiance, Michael Tyo, lives in Shelby.
The shooting was the deadliest attack on a place of worship in the United States since 1991, when nine people were killed at the Wat Promkunaram temple near Phoenix. Johnathan Doody, tried three times for the execution-style murders at the Buddhist temple, was sentenced in 2014 to 249 years in prison.
For some, the shooting evoked memories of the 1963 Birmingham bombing, in which Ku Klux Klan member planted dynamite on the steps of the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four African American girls.
“For such a heinous act to be perpetrated in a house of God more than a half a century after the 16th Street tragedy is a reminder to us all that we must be ever vigilant and work as one community to call out and eliminate racial hatred,” said Doug Jones, the former U.S. attorney who prosecuted some of the Klan members.
Pictures from the South Carolina State House showed a black cloth draped at the desk where Pinckney sat in the Senate. The Confederate flag continued to wave outside.
Vice President Biden, who had seen Pinckney last year at a prayer breakfast in Columbia, S.C., called the shooting an “act of pure evil and hatred.”
“Hate has once again been let loose in an American community,” Biden and his wife, Jill, said in a statement. “And the senseless actions of a coward have once again cut short so many lives with so much promise.”
Horwitz and Markon reported from Washington. Jeremy Borden in Columbia, SC; Anne Gearan in Charleston; Ken Otterbourg in Shelby and Brian Murphy, J. Freedom du Lac, Mark Berman, Lindsey Bever, Sarah Larimer, Elahe Izadi, Jose A. DelReal, Thad Moore, Ishaan Tharoor, Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.