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.”
The FBI has identified the shooter as Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man with sandy blond hair, from Columbia, South Carolina.
Roof is currently out on bond after being arrested for an trespassing and drug charges.
Shooter at South Carolina church sat with churchgoers before opening fire
Police in Charleston, South Carolina said on Thursday the white gunman who opened fire in an historic African-American church, killing nine people, sat with the churchgoers for about an hour before the shooting.
Police Chief Greg Mullen told reporters that six females and three males were murdered in the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wednesday night, and that three people survived the attack.
Mullen added that the unidentified gunman remained on the loose and that officials had no information on a "specific location" where he was.
Manhunt follows attack on historic black South Carolina church
Police in Charleston, South Carolina, were searching for a white gunman on Thursday who killed nine people in a historic African-American church, in an attack that police and the city's mayor described as a hate crime.
The shooter, a 21-year-old white man with sandy blond hair, sat with churchgoers inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church for about an hour on Wednesday before opening fire, Police Chief Gregory Mullen said.
The victims included Reverend Clementa Pinckney, the church's pastor and a Democratic member of the state Senate, his cousin and fellow state senator, Kent Williams, told CNN.
The gunman is extremely dangerous, Mullen said, and police did not have a sense of where he might be.
"This is an unfathomable and unspeakable act by somebody filled with hate and with a deranged mind," Charleston Mayor Joe Riley told reporters.
Six females and three males died in the attack, Mullen said.
The shooting recalled the 1963 bombing of an African-American church in Birmingham, Alabama, that killed four girls and galvanized the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
The Charleston church is one of the largest and oldest black congregations in the South, according to its website. It has its roots in the early 19th century, and was founded in part by a freed slave who was later executed for organizing a revolt, according to the U.S. National Park Service.
"This tragedy that we are addressing right now is indescribable," Mullen said. "We are committed to do whatever is necessary to bring this individual to justice."
The attack follows the April shooting of an unarmed black man in neighboring North Charleston by a white police officer. The officer has been charged with murder in that case, one of a number of deaths of unarmed black men in encounters with police that have raised racial tensions in the United States.
The community reacted with shock and grief after Wednesday's shooting.
"I'm heartbroken," said Shona Holmes, 28, a bystander at the aftermath of the shooting. "It's just hurtful to think that someone would come in and shoot people in a church. If you're not safe in church, where are you safe?"
The FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other agencies have joined in the investigation, Mullen said.
Eight victims were found dead in the church, Mullen said, and a ninth died after being taken to hospital. Three people survived the attack. Officials did not immediately identify the victims.
Williams called Pinckney's death hard to believe.
"It's devastating, devastating that someone would go into God's house and commit such a crime," Williams told CNN. "It's just a huge, huge loss."
Early on Thursday, Mullen released photos of the suspect taken from the church, as well as of a black sedan that he was seen leaving in. Mullen added there was "no reason to believe" that he was not in the Charleston area.
The shooter told one survivor he would let her live so she could tell others what happened, the president of the Charleston NAACP, Dot Scott, told the local Post and Courier newspaper.
Following the attack on the church, Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, canceled an appearance in Charleston that had been scheduled for Thursday morning.
"Governor Bush's thoughts and prayers are with the individuals and families affected by this tragedy," his campaign team said in a statement.
Reuters contributed to this report.