To commit the unholiest of sins in the holiest of places, the young man with the gun spent almost an hour praying with the people who would become his victims.
Then he opened fire.
Nine died. Three lived. One was injured. The man drove away in a black 2000 Hyundai Elantra GS, South Carolina tag LGF330.
The historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, a congregation formed in 1816 and of such prominence that the faithful revere it as “Mother Emanuel,” was left to tend to its despondent children.
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Fourteen hours after the shooting, 250 miles away in Shelby, North Carolina, a florist who had heard about the mass killing and the 21-year-old suspected of carrying it out spotted the Hyundai Thursday morning and called police.
Dylann Storm Roof was pulled over. He didn’t resist arrest.
“In America we don’t let bad people like this get away with this dastardly deed,” Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said.
Roof, a slender young man who appears in photographs posted online with a mop of light-brown hair, went to high school in Lexington, South Carolina. One picture shows him wearing symbols of modern-day white supremacists, a flag from the white-ruled former Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and another from South Africa under apartheid. Another photo shows the decorative front license tag that reads “Confederate States of America.”
The U.S. Justice Department is investigating the shooting as a hate crime.
In February, Roof was charged with felony drug possession of a prescription drug. In April, he was convicted on a misdemeanor charge of trespassing on the roof of a mall. His uncle told Reuters that Roof’s dad had given him a .45-caliber gun for his 21st birthday.
“I’ve had to make statements like this too many times,” President Barack Obama said at the White House. “We don’t have all the facts, but we do know that once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had no trouble getting their hand on a gun.”
In Charleston, where a person standing in front of a church can often glimpse another steeple nearby, giving birth to the nickname “Holy City,” the innocent — six women and three men — had gathered for a mid-week Bible study with their pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41, a Democratic state senator with a booming voice and gentle demeanor.
“What church is all about,” he said in 2013, is “freedom to worship and freedom from sin.”
So did Cynthia Hurd, 54. And Susie Jackson, 87. And Ethel Lance, 70. And the Rev. DePayne Middleton, 49. And Tywanza Sanders, 26. And Daniel Simmons, 74. And the Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45. And Myra Thompson, 59.
Multiple gunshot wounds, the coroner said.
“There is a growth in senseless violence,” the Rev. John Richard Bryant, bishop of the fourth district African Methodist Episcopal Church, said at an overflowing vigil for the victims Thursday afternoon. “There’s violence in playgrounds. There’s violence in our homes. There’s violence in our schools. Now there’s violence in our churches.
“And there is one common denominator, and the one common denominator is the gun.”
Many of the people in the pews at Morris Brown A.M.E. Church rose to applaud. But not everyone.
Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who spoke at the vigil, earlier this year endorsed no longer requiring gun owners to pass training or a criminal background check.
“We woke up today and the heart of South Carolina was broken,” she told reporters Thursday, pausing mid-sentence to compose herself.
“We shall overcome,” the vigil congregants sang in powerful voices as they held hands and swayed.
Afterward, someone called in a bomb threat. The church was evacuated. The threat was fake.
There were other bomb scares later Thursday, including after the coroner’s news conference. There had been one Wednesday night, amid the eerily quiet chaos following the shooting. Police tried to track the suspected gunman in the dark with dogs and helicopters. At one point, they detained the wrong man — a young photographer — because he was dressed like the suspect: gray shirt, dark pants.
An impromptu prayer circle formed, with a desolate pastor looking into the sky in anger.
“Where do we go from here?” asked the Rev. Thomas Ravenell of Empowerment Missionary Baptist Church in North Charleston. “How do I look at heaven when hell is always on my back?”
The clergy was surrounded by a gaggle of reporters, many of them from out-of-town news outlets coincidentally in Charleston to cover events held by two presidential candidates — Democrat Hillary Clinton on Wednesday and Republican Jeb Bush on Thursday. Instead, the reporters found themselves on the police beat, chronicling the country’s latest mass shooting for a national audience.
Bush, flying in a private plane, landed in the Charleston area Wednesday night but never made it into the city. He canceled his campaign event, saying it was no time for politics. The Charleston Maritime Center, rented for his town hall-style meeting, became the site for a series of police news conferences.
“No one in this community will ever forget this night,” Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said.
Confronted by a hateful shooting in a city that a century and a half earlier served as a flash point for the Civil War, Charleston residents tried to go about their business Thursday. Schools opened. Traffic backed up.
But there were signs that all was not well.
“Put down the guns young people,” read a large yellow poster a few blocks from Mother Emanuel. Mourners made makeshift memorials with balloons and flowers just outside the police perimeter. The marquee at the American theater on King Street asked for prayers.
Half a block away, a human-resources company’s building stood tall, white with blue lettering that spelled out words that had taken on a new meaning.
The company’s name?
Miami Herald staff writers Charles Rabin and McClatchy Washington correspondents Lesley Clark and Anita Kumar contributed to this report.