A lone gunman is alleged to have killed nine people praying at a historic African American church in Charleston, South Carolina Wednesday night. He has been arrested.
Authorities identified the suspect as Dylann Roof, a 21-year white man residing in the same state. He was arrested during a traffic stop and was said to be cooperating with investigators.
US law enforcement said the shooting, which was described as the worst at a place of worship in recent memory, was being investigated as a hate crime; race related in other words.
President Barack Obama said the shooting raised once again questions about the country’s “dark history” — in the context of race relations — and gun violence.
Roof had sat among his eventual victims for an hour before opening fire Wednesday night. It was not clear if he used a .45 calibre handgun his father gifted him on his last birthday.
His motives remained unclear. But a survivor, who described him as “quiet” and “soft-spoken”, told a local TV news station that he spoke to his victims before the shooting.
“He just said, 'I have to do it.’,” said the witness reportedly, adding, “He said, 'You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go’.”
The same survivor, a woman, was also quoted by local community leaders as saying that the gunman let her live only because he wanted her to tell the world what happened.
“Her life was spared, and (she was) told, ‘I'm not going to kill you, I'm going to spare you, so you can tell them what happened’,” Charleston’s Dot Scott told CNN.
The church where the shooting took place, the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, was founded in 1816 and holds an important place in US history.
One of its co-founders led a rebellion of slaves in 1822, which failed. The church was driven underground as a result, and the building was destroyed. The present structure was built in 1891.
The church’s pastor Clementa Pinckney, who was also a member of the South Carolina state senate, was among those killed. The other victims had not been identified yet.
“The heart and soul of South Carolina was broken,” said an emotional Nikki Haley, the state’s Indian American governor, at a news briefing in Charleston.
The shooting shocked a nation recovering from a spate of killings of African American men by police officers. And an apparently retaliatory killing of two officers.
The last shooting at a place of working took place in August 2013 when a white supremacist killed seven people at a Gurudwara in Wisconsin. He had killed himself.