White Suspect Identified for Killing of Nine People in Massacre at Black Church

Authorities searched through Charleston, South Carolina, early Thursday for Dylann Storm Roof, suspected of being the gunman who entered a historic black church and opened fire at a prayer meeting, killing nine people in what is being investigated as a hate crime.

The gunman attended a church meeting for nearly an hour before he began shooting Wednesday evening, Police Chief Greg Mullen told reporters at a televised news briefing Thursday morning.

“We are committed, we are determined, we are definitely working with a number of agents and officers to identify the individual,” said Mullen, who described the attack as a hate crime. “This is a situation that is unacceptable in any society, especially in our city.”

“This is an unfathomable and unspeakable act by somebody filled with hate and a deranged mind,” Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. told reporters. “We will make sure he pays the price for this act.”

The mayor also pledged to reach out to the Emanuel AME Church, a major black congregation with a long and distinguished existence that is rooted in the era before the Civil War.

“We will put our arms around that church and that church family,” Riley pledged.

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the FBI, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina have opened hate crime investigations into the shooting, which are parallel to and cooperative with the state’s investigation.

Police released photographs from a surveillance video showing a suspect and the escape vehicle. Mullen said he had no reason to think the man had fled the Charleston area, but sent all information to agencies around the country.

The gunman was described as a white man thought to be from 21 to 25 years old and about 5 feet, 9 inches tall.

Mullen repeatedly called the attacker a “very dangerous individual,” urging people to call police and not pursue him or his vehicle on their own.

A federal law enforcement official told the Los Angeles Times that suspect may have used disguises to hide his identity.

The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said it appeared from the surveillance images that the assailant entered the facility possibly wearing a wig, a fake nose and may even have dyed part of his skin color.

The official also noted that the man was wearing a heavy gray sweatshirt over a white T shirt on an extremely warm day in Charleston, but may have been dressed like that to hide a firearm. The shooter also appeared to be carrying a small backpack over his right shoulder which could have contained a weapon and ammunition as well.

“It was really hot,” the official said. “Why was he wearing a long- sleeved sweatshirt?”

Also under investigation is a bomb threat called into police to blow up the church with a countdown of 86 minutes, the official said. However the source said it was not immediately known whether the threat was authentic. No explosives had been found. “We’re not sure it’s connected,” the official said.

Other surveillance images are available, and the official said authorities hope to release them soon.

Mullen said he was unable to give a make and model on the suspect’s dark sedan because investigators were uncertain from the images.

The church holds a Bible study class every Wednesday evening.

The gunman was in the church about 8 p.m. and apparently sat down, Mullen told reporters, based on information from a witness who was there and was unharmed. The witness, one of a handful of survivors in the church, told authorities that the gunman let her live so she could tell her story.

The federal law enforcement official said that at one point the man said something to one of the survivors that indicated why he was there. The official did not know exactly what was said, or whether it was said before or after he started shooting.

The official added that what the gunman said “goes to motive,” meaning law enforcement officials take it as the reason why the thin, lanky man opened fire. He said the man’s words have led authorities at this point “to consider this a hate crime.”

About 9 p.m., the gunman opened fire. “He was in the church about an hour before the actual deaths,” Mullen said.

Mullen said he had no reason to think the man had fled the Charleston area, but sent all information to agencies around the country. He repeatedly called the attacker a “very dangerous individual,” urging people to call police and not pursue him or his vehicle on their own.

Mullen said he was unable to give a make and model on the suspect’s dark sedan because investigators were uncertain from the images.

The church holds a Bible study class every Wednesday evening.

The gunman was in the church and apparently sat down, Mullen told reporters, based on information from a witness who was there and was unharmed. The witness told authorities that the gunman let her live so she could tell her story.

Little has been announced about the dead to allow time for families to be notified, but Mullen said there were six females and three males. Eight died at the church and one died after being rushed to a hospital.

Earlier reports said another person was injured and being treated, but Mullen said that was wrong.

One of the dead was identified as pastor and state Sen. Clementa Pinckney. Pinckney, 41, was a married father of two who was first elected when he was 23 years old.

Emmanuel AME church traces its roots to 1816, when several churches split from Charleston’s 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.

“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.

The attack came two months after the fatal shooting of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, by a white police officer in neighboring North Charleston, which sparked 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, the slain pastor, was a sponsor of that bill.