Nation

Charleston suspect allegedly joined Bible study, then opened fire

Accused shooter is 21-year-old Dylann Roof

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The mass murder of nine people who gathered Wednesday night for Bible study at a historic black church has shaken a city whose history from slavery to the Civil War to the present is inseparable from the nation’s anguished struggle with race.

Fourteen hours after the massacre at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in which the Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, the church pastor and a prominent state senator was among the dead, the police arrested Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year-old white man with an unsettled personal life and a recent history of antiblack views.

The killings, with victims ranging in age from 26 to 87, left people stunned and grieving. Witnesses said the gunman sat with church members for an hour and then started venting against African-Americans and opened fire.

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At the Morris Brown African Methodist Episcopal Church here, blacks, whites, Christians, and Jews gathered to proclaim that a racist gunman would not divide a community already tested by the fatal police shooting in April of an unarmed African-American, Walter Scott.

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“We cannot make sense of what has happened, but we can come together,” declared the Rev. George Felder Jr., pastor of the New Hope AME Church.

In Charleston, nicknamed “Holy City” for its large number of churches, many houses of worship held prayer vigils, for the dead and for survivors, that drew people from different communities, races and denominations together.

At the Morris Brown Church, just a few blocks from Emanuel, the mood of a packed house alternated between grief, hope and resilience. Calls of “enough is enough” echoed as the Rev. John Richard Bryant called for an end to gun violence.

“You look like a quilt, you look like patches,” Bryant said. “You all fit somewhere.”

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At a news conference, Governor Nikki Haley fought back tears, her voice trembling and cracking. “We woke up today, and the heart and soul of South Carolina was broken,” she said.

Even amid calls here for calm and compassion, at least three bomb threats were made Thursday that forced the evacuation of buildings around Charleston, including churches where prayer vigils were being held for the shooting victims. And while the racially mixed crowds inside those churches linked arms and appealed for harmony, the tone among black people gathered on the city’s streets was not so conciliatory.

Jareem Brady, 42, said the shooting was only an extension of what black people face daily.

“We’re not worth the air they don’t want us to breathe,” he said of Charleston’s white citizens.

The church holds a special place in the history of Charleston and particularly of its African-American population.

Lexington County (S.C.) Detention Center via AP
Dylann Roof, 21.

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It has the oldest black congregation south of Baltimore, according to the National Park Service, and its website calls it the oldest AME church in the South. The church’s current Gothic Revival building was completed in 1891, but the congregation dates to before 1820.

Of those killed Wednesday, the most prominent was the church’s leader, Pinckney, 41.

“He was very gentle,” Mayor Joseph P. Riley said. “He spoke thoughtfully and deliberately. He had a big job, because that’s a big important church.”

Pinckney was holding a Bible study session with a small group Wednesday when, surveillance video shows, the suspect arrived after 8 p.m. — a slight, blond man with a bowl haircut and a gray sweatshirt.

The suspect sat down with the others for a while and listened, then began to disagree with others as they spoke about Scripture, said Kristen Washington, who heard the harrowing story from her family members who were in the meeting and survived.

Witnesses to the tragedy said the gunman actually asked for the pastor when he entered the church, and sat next to Pinckney during the Bible study.

They said that almost an hour after he arrived, the gunman suddenly stood and pulled a gun, and Washington’s cousin, Tywanza Sanders, 26, known as the peacemaker of the family, tried to calmly talk the man out of violence.

“You don’t have to do this,” he told the gunman, Washington recounted.

The gunman replied, “Yes. You are raping our women and taking over the country.”

In an interview with NBC News, Sylvia Johnson, a cousin of Pinckney’s who also spoke with a survivor, gave nearly the same account of what the gunman said: “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”

The gunman took aim at the oldest person present, Susie Jackson, 87, Sanders’ aunt, Washington said. Sanders told the man to point the gun at him, instead, she said, but the man said, “It doesn’t matter. I’m going to shoot all of you.”

Sanders dived in front of his aunt and the first shot struck him, Washington said, and then the gunman began shooting others. She said Sanders’ mother, Felicia, and his niece, lay motionless on the floor, playing dead, and were not shot.

The gunman looked at one woman and told her “that she was going to live so that she can tell the story of what happened,” said Councilman William Dudley Gregorie, a friend of both the female survivor and a trustee in the Emanuel church.

The gunman left six women and three men dead or dying, including a library manager, a former county administrator, a speech therapist who also worked for the church, and two ministers.

Greg Mullen, the Charleston police chief, called it a hate crime, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the Justice Department was investigating that possibility.

In a photo on his Facebook page, a glowering Roof (pronounced “Rawf”) wears symbols of two former white supremacist regimes — the flags of apartheid-era South Africa, and of Rhodesia, the nation that became Zimbabwe.

Other photos, posted by a Facebook friend of his and widely circulated online, show Roof leaning against a car with a license plate that reads, “Confederate States of America.”

Local, state, and federal law enforcement started a manhunt for the suspect, distributing pictures of him entering the church and asking people to be on the lookout for him or his 2000 Hyundai sedan.

By midmorning Thursday, the suspect had been identified as Roof. A short time later, someone reported possibly sighting him 200 miles to the northwest, in Shelby, N.C. Jeffrey Ledford, the Shelby police chief, said officers there pulled Roof over, and arrested him without incident at 10:49 a.m.

They said they had found a gun in the car.

Roof waived extradition and was flown to South Carolina on Thursday evening and, amid extraordinary security, walked into the jail in Charleston County at 7:25 p.m.

As Roof, who was wearing a striped jail jumpsuit, entered the jail through a secured entrance, a police dog barked, cameras clicked, and one woman muttered, ‘‘The bastard’s here.’’

Nearby, Hikaym Rivers, a 15-year-old from North Charleston, held a handwritten sign: ‘‘Your evil doing did not break our community! You made us stronger!’’

Contributors include Alex Sanz, Meg Kinnard and David Goldman in Charleston, South Carolina; Eric Tucker in Washington and Jacob Jordan in Atlanta.