ABOVE PHOTO: A man kneels across the street from where police gather outside the Emanuel AME Church following a shooting Wednesday, June 17, 2015, in Charleston, S.C. (Wade Spees/The Post And Courier via AP)
By Alex Sanz and Russ Bynum
CHARLESTON, S.C.–The suspect in a mass shooting that claimed the lives of nine people worshipping at an historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina has been captured in North Carolina.
Twenty-one-year-old Dylann Storm Roof of Lexington, South Carolina was arrested Thursday during a traffic stop in Shelby, North Carolina, Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said.
Mullen said previously that Roof stayed at a prayer meeting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church for nearly an hour on Wednesday night before he opened fire, killing three males and six females. Among the dead was state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor. Names of the other victims haven’t been released. Officials have said they are waiting until families are notified.
An intense manhunt had been underway for Roof.
“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.”
State Sen. 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.”
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.