CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) – An intense manhunt ended Thursday for a white man who joined a prayer meeting and then opened fire inside a historic black church in downtown Charleston, killing nine people, including the pastor. The shooter was apprehended by police. Authorities called it a hate crime.
Charleston police identified him as Dylann Storm Roof, 21, of Lexington, South Carolina.
The gunman stayed for nearly an hour at the prayer meeting Wednesday night before shooting the victims – six females and three males, Police Chief Greg Mullen said.
“Acts like this one have no place in our country,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at a news conference in Washington, where the Justice Department opened a hate crime investigation. “They have no place in a civilized society.” “The individual who committed these unspeakable acts will be found and will face justice,” Lynch added. “We will do everything in our power to heal this community and make it whole again.”
Lynch said this crime “has reached into the heart of that community.”
It’s particularly provocative because black churches have been targeted so often. They were bombed in the 1960s, when they served as organizing hubs for the Civil Rights movement. A rash of arsons in the 1990s targeted black churches in the South. Other congregations have survived shooting sprees.
Roof’s childhood friend, Joey Meek, alerted the FBI after recognizing him in a surveillance camera image that was widely circulated, said Meek’s mother, Kimberly Kozny. Roof had worn that sweatshirt over to their house many times as they played Xbox videogames in recent weeks, she added.
Roof also displayed a Confederate flag on his license plate, she said. State court records show only one pending felony drug case against him, and a past misdemeanor trespassing charge.
“I don’t know what was going through his head,” Kozny said. “He was a really sweet kid. He was quiet. He only had a few friends.”
The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church’s pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, was among those killed. Pinckney, 41, was a married father of two who was elected to the state House at 23, making him the youngest member of the House at the time.
“He never had anything bad to say about anybody, even when I thought he should,” State House Minority leader Todd Rutherford told The Associated Press. “He was always out doing work either for his parishioners or his constituents. He touched everybody.”
This shooting “should be a warning to us all that we do have a problem in our society,” said state Rep. Wendell Gilliard, a Democrat whose district includes the church. “We need action. There’s a race problem in our country. There’s a gun problem in our country. We need to act on them quickly.”
Mullen said names of the victims would be released once families have been notified.
Mullen said he had no reason to think the suspect has left the Charleston area, but was distributing information about him and the vehicle around the country.
Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. called the shooting “an unfathomable and unspeakable act by somebody filled with hate and with a deranged mind.”
“Of all cities, in Charleston, to have a horrible hateful person go into the church and kill people there to pray and worship with each other is something that is beyond any comprehension and is not explained,” Riley said. “We are going to put our arms around that church and that church family.”
A few bouquets of flowers tied to a police barricade formed a small but growing memorial Thursday morning a block away from the church.
“Today I feel like it’s 9-11 again,” Bob Dyer, who works in the area, said after leaving an arrangement of yellow flowers wrapped in plastic. “I’m in shock.”
Charleston residents Samuel Ward and Evangeline Simmons stood silently at the barricade with arms around each other. Simmons said she belongs to another AME congregation.
“It’s like it’s just trying to strip away part of your faith,” Simmons said. “But it just makes you stronger.”
In a statement, NAACP President and CEO Cornell William Brooks condemned the shooting.
“There is no greater coward than a criminal who enters a house of God and slaughters innocent people engaged in the study of scripture,” Brooks said.
The attack came two months after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Walter Scott, by a white police officer in neighboring North Charleston that sparked major protests and highlighted racial tensions in the area. The officer has been charged with murder, and the shooting prompted South Carolina lawmakers to push through a bill helping all police agencies in the state get body cameras. Pinckney was a sponsor of that bill.
Soon after Wednesday night’s shooting, a group of pastors huddled together praying in a circle across the street.
Community organizer Christopher Cason said he felt certain the shootings were racially motivated.
“I am very tired of people telling me that I don’t have the right to be angry,” Cason said. “I am very angry right now.”
Even before Scott’s shooting in April, Cason said he had been part of a group meeting with police and local leaders to try to shore up relations.
The Emanuel AME church is a historic African-American church that traces its roots to 1816, when its founding members split from Charleston’s white-run Methodist Episcopal church.
One of its founders, Denmark Vesey, tried to organize a slave revolt in 1822. He was caught, and white landowners had his church burned in revenge. Parishioners worshipped underground until after the Civil War.
Update, 1 p.m. ET:
WASHINGTON – Leaders from the largest union representing federal and D.C. government employees today expressed their profound grief for the victims of last night’s deadly shooting at an historic black church in downtown Charleston, S.C.
American Federation of Government Employees National President J. David Cox Sr., National Secretary-Treasurer Eugene Hudson Jr., and National Vice President for Women’s and Fair Practices Augusta Y. Thomas said the mass killing of nine churchgoers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church is yet another painful reminder that a culture of violence continues to permeate our nation’s communities.
“Until we learn to treat each other with respect, compassion and dignity, we are doomed to repeat this vicious and senseless cycle of human-on-human violence that has taken its toll on too many communities already,” the AFGE leaders said in a joint statement.
“By all accounts, the women and men who were gathered at Emanuel AME Church for their weekly Bible study welcomed into their group the young man who would later turn his gun on them in a brutal act of racial hatred.
“Our hearts go out to the families and friends of the victims and to the entire community. We at AFGE headquarters will be gathering together this afternoon for a moment of reflection and contemplation, and we encourage other employers to allow their workers to do the same.
“Our thoughts and prayers also go out to the law enforcement officers who worked diligently to bring the suspected gunman to justice.
“Today is a sad day for all Americans, but our hope is that we as a nation can come together in our grief and strengthen the human bonds that tie us all together.”
Update: 4:30 p.m. E.T. –
The following statement was issued by Cornell William Brooks for theNAACP at 4 p.m. ET:
Nine parishioners were murdered last night while attending Bible study at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.
They were killed in cold blood by Dylann Roof, a white man who sat among them during their worship for more than an hour, then opened fire, declaring “You’re raping our women and taking over the country. You have to go.”
There is no greater coward than a criminal who enters a house of God and slaughters innocent people engaged in the study of scripture.
In these times we feel distraught-but we will not cower when attacked. I am on my way to fellowship with the Emanuel AME Church community. As we wait for the facts and ponder how anyone could act with such hate, we must stand together and show our support for the Charleston community.
Now that Dylann Storm Roof has been apprehended, we look forward to justice being served-to him being held accountable, punished swiftly and severely.
Our heartfelt prayers and soul-deep condolences go out to the families and community of the victims. This small gesture can console and unite our community-and our nation-as we grapple with the weight of this tragedy.
Update 5:00 p.m. E.T. –
President Obama spoke about the killings this afternoon. In part of his statement he noted that given the church’s history in the Civil Rights Movement, the murders were especially grim.
“The fact that this took place in a black church also raises questions about the dark part of our history,” the President said. “This is not the first time that black churches have been attacked and we know that hatred across races and faiths poses a particular threat to our democracy and our ideals.”
Contributors include Meg Kinnard and David Goldman in Charleston, South Carolina; Eric Tucker in Washington and Jacob Jordan in Atlanta.
Photo: David Goldman/AP