A 21-year-old white man suspected of killing nine people at a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina was arrested on Thursday after an attack that the United States is investigating as a hate crime.
Law enforcement officials arrested alleged gunman Dylann Storm Roof after a traffic stop in Shelby, North Carolina, about 220 miles north of Charleston, said police chief Gregory Mullen.
A witness told NBC that the gunman sat through nearly an hour of Bible study Wednesday night before saying, “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.”
Mullen told reporters called the shooting "a tragic, heinous crime."
The mass shooting followed months of racially charged protests over killings of black men which have shaken the United States.
U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said her office was investigating whether to charge Roof with a hate crime motivated by racial or other prejudice. Such crimes typically carry harsher penalties.
“The fact that this took place in a black church obviously raises questions about a dark part of our history,” U.S. President Barack Obama told reporters. “We don't have all the facts but we know that, once again, innocent people were killed in part because someone who wanted to inflict harm had notrouble getting their hands on a gun.”
In a Facebook photograph Roof is seen wearing a black jacket with two flags pinned to it — one from apartheid-era South Africa, the other from white-ruled Rhodesia. Both flags are used as emblems by modern-day white supremacists, the New York Times reported.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which researches U.S. hate groups, said the attack illustrates the dangers that home-grown extremists pose.
“Since 9/11, our country has been fixated on the threat of Jihadi terrorism. But the horrific tragedy at the Emanuel AME reminds us that the threat of homegrown domestic terrorism is very real,” the group said in a statement, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States.
A man who identified himself as Roof's uncle earlier told Reuters Roof's father had recently given him a .45-caliber handgun as a birthday present and that Roof had seemed adrift.
“I don't have any words for it,” the uncle, Carson Cowles, 56, said in a telephone interview. “Nobody in my family had seen anything like this coming.”