Police arrest white suspect for attack on historic black church

Police identify Dylann Roof as suspect in attack on Charleston, South Carolina, church that left nine dead

A white man was arrested on Thursday on suspicions he killed nine people at a historic black church in South Carolina after sitting with them for an hour of Bible study in an attack U.S. officials are investigating as a hate crime.

The massacre occured on Wednesday night at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, one of oldest African-American houses of worship in the country. Among those killed was South Carolina state Sen. and the church's current pastor Clementa Pinckney.

The mass shooting set off an intense 14-hour manhunt that ended when 21-year-old Dylann Roof was arrested in a traffic stop about 220 miles north of Charleston, South Carolina, where the shooting occurred, officials said.

Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said a tip to the Shelby Police Department, reportedly from a florist running late to work, led to a traffic stop that resulted in the suspect's arrest. Roof was "cooperative," Mullen added, but he would not comment on whether any weapons were found in Roof's vehicle.

Federal authorities said they would investigate the shooting as a hate crime. The U.S. Department of Justice said the investigation — which involves the department's civil rights division, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office in South Carolina — will be "parallel to and cooperative with the state's investigation." 

Mullen, who said he believes the incident was a hate crime, told reporters at a morning news conference that the entire city of Charleston was grieving.

"This tragedy that we’re addressing right now is indescribable," Mullen said before Roof's arrest. “It is unfathomable that somebody in today’s society would walk into a church when people are having a prayer meeting and take their lives," he added.

Roof sat with churchgoers for about an hour on Wednesday before opening fire, Mullen said. He reloaded five times, even as victims pleaded with him to stop, according to a relative of Pinckney's.

Carson Cowles, Roof's uncle, told law enforcement officials on Thursday that he recognized Roof in a photo released by police. He noted that Roof's father gave him a .45-caliber pistol for his birthday this year.

Images on social media on Thursday showed Roof displaying symbols commonly associated with racist and white-dominant governing systems. In one photo from his Facebook account, Roof is wearing a jacket emblazoned with the flags of Apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), governments that enforced systems of racial separation and white privilege.

In another picture, shared by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an Alabama-based civil rights group, Roof is sitting on the hood of a car with a plate commemorating the Confederate States of America.

Dalton Tyler, Root’s roommate who spoke with ABC News, said that the shooter had been “planning something like that for six months.”

“He was big into segregation and other stuff,” Tyler said. “He said he wanted to start a civil war. He said he was going to do something like that and then kill himself.”

Police have identified the shooter as Dylann Roof, 21, of Lexington, South Carolina.
Via Facebook

"Mother Emanuel Church is such an influential church, and Sen. Pinckney — the loss of that senator is just a great loss to the community, along with all of the others that we lost as well," Abraham Belanger, the pastor of the First Fruits Community Church in nearby Summerville, told Al Jazeera. 

In addition to the nine fatalities, one person was wounded in the attack and taken to a hospital, police said. Three others who were present at the time of the shooting survived.

Condemnation of the attack came swiftly. Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley on Wednesday condemned the shooting and characterized it as a hate crime. "The only reason why someone would walk into a church and shoot people who are praying is out of hate," he said. 

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley urged people to pray for the victims and their families. “While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we'll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another,” she said in a statement on Facebook.

Cornell William Brooks, the president and CEO of the NAACP, released a statement expressing outrage over the incident and extended his sympathies to the victims' families. "The NAACP was founded to fight against racial hatred, and we are outraged that 106 years later, we are faced today with another mass hate crime. Our heartfelt prayers and soul-deep condolences go out to the families and community of the victims at Charleston’s historic Emanuel AME Church," he said. "There is no greater coward than a criminal who enters a house of God and slaughters innocent people engaged in the study of Scripture."

President Barack Obama also addressed the shooting at an afternoon press conference, bringing up the issue of gun control. "Now is the time for mourning and for healing, but — let’s be clear — 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. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency," he said. 

Mother Emanuel, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the South, opened its doors in 1816. Six years later, the church building was burned to the ground when one of the church’s founders was implicated in a slave revolt plot. It was rebuilt in 1834. 

Al Jazeera and wire services

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