Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said Roof was arrested during a traffic stop in Shelby, N.C., just after 11 a.m. Mullen said Roof “was cooperative with the officer who stopped him” in Shelby, about 250 miles from Charleston.
“In America, you know, we don’t let bad people like this get away with these dastardly deeds,” Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. (D) said at the briefing. The longtime mayor said Roof — “an awful person” — “is now in custody, where he will always remain.”
Six female and three male victims were killed and at least one other person was injured in Wednesday’s attack, which began about an hour after the assailant entered the church and observed the service, authorities said. “We believe this is a hate crime; that is how we are investigating it,” Mullen said.
The U.S. Justice Department has said it is investigating the attack at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church as a hate crime.
“Any death of this sort is a tragedy; any shooting involving multiple victims is a tragedy,” President Obama said at the White House. “There is something particularly heartbreaking about a death happening in a place in which we seek solace and we seek peace, in a place of worship.”
Although he acknowledged many facts are not yet known, the president also said that insufficient gun laws were partially to blame.
“Once again innocent people were killed because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hands on a gun,” he said.
“Now is the time for mourning and for healing,” the president added. “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.”
Thursday marked the president’s 14th statement related to a shooting since he took office, according to Mark Knoller of CBS News. Of those, 11 were about domestic shootings while three occurred abroad.
Wednesday’s shooting was the deadliest attack on a place of worship in the United States in recent memory. In 2012, a white supremacist shot and killed six worshipers and wounded four others at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. A shooting rampage by a gunman in 2008 killed two people and wounded seven at a Unitarian Universalist church in Tennessee.
“Acts like this one have no place in our country and no place in a civil society,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said Thursday as she vowed to bring the perpetrator to justice.
According to federal law enforcement officials, the gunman made racist comments before he started shooting inside the church.
Roof sat in the back of the room for about an hour, these officials said, and some people in the Bible study group encouraged him to join the discussion. Before he began firing a semiautomatic handgun, Roof said something that the officials described as hateful racial epithets.
Officials said that the gunshots were fired at close range, rather than a random spray of gunfire across the room. There was no warning, no threat to the church, beforehand, the officials said.
Roof lived about 15 miles southeast of Columbia, the state capital, in Eastover, court records show. He was arrested twice earlier this year, once on a drug charge and later for trespassing, records show. Both arrests occurred near Columbia.
He was found guilty of trespassing, but the drug charge was still pending. He was fined $262.50, which he elected to pay off in installments.
“We woke up today and the heart and soul of South Carolina was broken,” Gov. Nikki Haley said after Roof’s capture. She added: “The healing process will start.”
Although authorities did not release the names of the victims, relatives and colleagues said the church’s pastor, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who is also a South Carolina state senator, was killed in the attack.
Pictures from the South Carolina State House showed a black cloth draped at Pinckney’s seat, and friends and colleagues began posting condolences on social media.
“Rest in peace my friend Sen. Rev. Clementa Pinckney,” Rep. Samuel Rivers Jr. wrote on Twitter.
“My friend and brother in Christ Senator Clementa Pinckney was shot to death in the senseless tragedy that occurred in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston,” Larry Grooms, a state senator, wrote on Facebook. “My heart breaks for the loss of Sen. Pinckney, the other victims and for their families. Now is the time for prayer. Let us all unite our hearts in prayer and ask God for His Grace, Love and Mercy.”
[Clementa Pinckney remembered for calls for justice]
Police have not provided many details about the circumstances of Roof’s arrest, but Mullen, the Charleston police chief, said the traffic stop began when a citizen reported something suspicious to law enforcement. That tip prompted police to stop the car in Shelby.
Mullen also said that it did not appear in the aftermath of Roof’s arrest that other people participated in the shooting. “We don’t have any reason to believe that anybody else was involved,” he said.
Roof remained in Shelby, N.C., nearly an hour after his arrest. Mullen declined to discuss many details of the investigation and would not answer a question about whether Roof admitted guilt in the shooting.
Police said the victims were gathered in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, also known as “Mother Emanuel,” for a prayer meeting Wednesday when the shooting occurred. The congregation, established in 1816, is one of the oldest African American churches in the United States.
[For Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E. church, shooting is another painful chapter in long history]
“This is the most unspeakable and heartbreaking tragedy in historic Emanuel AME church, the mother church of the AME churches,” said Riley, the mayor. “People in prayer Wednesday evening, a ritual coming together, praying and worshiping God. To have an awful person come in and shoot them is inexplicable. Obviously the most intolerable and unbelievable act possible.”
“The only reason someone could walk into a church and shoot people praying is out of hate,” Riley continued. “The only reason. It is the most dastardly act that one could possibly imagine.”
Police said the shooting occurred at about 9 p.m. at the historic church, which is located between Henrietta and Calhoun streets near Marion Square in downtown Charleston. Emergency dispatchers received a call at about 9:05 p.m., police said, and units were immediately dispatched to the church.
When officers arrived, they determined that eight people had been killed inside the church, Mullen said. A ninth person was taken to a nearby hospital, where that person died, the police chief said. Police initially said a total of two people had been taken to the hospital, but clarified later that there was only one.
At a nearby Embassy Suites hotel, which was serving as an informal headquarters for church members in the hours after the shooting, people began sobbing and screaming as they learned details about what had happened. “It was a heartbreaking scene I have never witnessed in my life before,” Riley said.
The Rev. Norvel Goff, a presiding elder for the African Methodist Episcopal Church who was interviewed near the scene, said the gunman “walked in, from my understanding, not so much as a participant, but as a brief observer who then stood up and then started shooting.”
“It’s a very tragic situation,” Goff said. “Stressful. Grieving.”
Mullen told reporters that the person stayed with the group in the church for about an hour before opening fire.
“This tragedy that we’re addressing right now is undescribable,” the police chief said at a news conference early Thursday morning. “No one in this community will ever forget this night.”
[Jeb Bush cancels events in Charleston due to church shooting]
After the shooting, helicopters swarmed overhead and heavily armed police wearing bulletproof vests fanned out across the city to search for the gunman.
“This was a very chaotic scene when we arrived,” Mullen said. “We were tracking this individual with canines. We were making sure that he was not in the area to commit other crimes. As all this was going on, we received information that there might be a secondary explosive device in the scene.”
Taxi driver Sheila Seagers, 60, heard the news on the radio and parked her Lincoln Town Car blocks from the scene. She stayed for hours, lingering and chatting quietly with friends. She called her state of mind a “ball of confusion.”
“I keep thinking of that big, beautiful church,” she said.
“We don’t want trouble but we keeping getting trouble,” she added. “I hate to say it, but what’s next? I pray that when morning comes there will be peace.”
[The stubborn persistence of American hate crime]
Crisis chaplains rushed to the scene as people started circles to pray for the victims and their families.
“I had to come, couldn’t sit home and watch my community on television,” said 59-year-old Ken Battle, a retired member of the U.S. Air Force. “But I can’t make up my mind about what has happened here. Being here helps me make meaning out of it.”
Johnny Brooks, 54, a retired electric worker, came with his wife. “Our backyard! Our city,” he said. “I am at a loss for words.”
[11 essential facts about guns and mass shootings in the United States]
At a subsequent news conference, Riley called the shooter a “horrible scoundrel” and said: “This is an unfathomable and unspeakable act by somebody filled with hate and with a deranged mind.”
At a midday prayer service at Morris Brown AME Church on Thursday, the congregation burst into sustained applause when Rev. Goff, the presiding elder, said the suspect had been captured.
“Some of us haven’t been to bed yet,” Goff said. “But good folk can’t go to sleep when evil is trying to come in.”
This story has been updated several times. Bever, Horwitz and du Lac reported from Washington, where Mark Berman, Jose A. DelReal, William Wan, Thad Moore and Brian Murphy also contributed reporting. Anne Gearan contributed from Charleston.