The 21-year-old accused of killing nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, had been “planning something like that for six months”, his roommate has revealed, as friends recalled Dylann Roof’s tirades against African Americans “taking over the world” and his desire to ignite “a civil war”.
The killings have sent shockwaves across the US, as the nation confronts a breaking point over race and gun violence following yet another mass shooting. Hundreds of people gathered to pay their respects outside the Emanuel AME Church – the scene of the shooting – on Thursday evening, with more prayer services held throughout Charleston.
A day after the massacre – labelled a “hate crime” by South Carolina police – a portrait of Roof as an apparently committed racist is building from interviews with associates of the young man, shown in Facebook photos wearing a jacket bearing the flags of the former white-racist regimes of South Africa and Rhodesia.
Joseph Meek Jr, a childhood friend who saw Roof the morning of the shooting, said the pair had never discussed race growing up. But when they recently reconnected, Roof told him “blacks were taking over the world [and] someone needed to do something about it for the white race”, he told the Associated Press.
“He said he wanted segregation between whites and blacks. I said, ‘That’s not the way it should be.’ But he kept talking about it.”
Meek said that when he woke up on Wednesday morning Roof was at his house, sleeping in his car outside – its license plate bearing the confederate flag.
Later that day, Meek said he and some friends had gone to a nearby lake but Roof stayed behind, deciding he’d rather see a movie. The next time he saw Roof was in surveillance-camera photos distributed by police in the aftermath of the killing. “I knew it was him,” Meek said.
A roommate, Dalton Tyler, said Roof had been “planning something like that for six months”.
“He was big into segregation and other stuff,” Tyler told ABC News. “He said he wanted to start a civil war. He said he was going to do something like that and then kill himself.”
He said Roof had been “on and off” with his parents, but they had previously bought him a gun. He hadn’t been allowed to take it with him until this week, Tyler said.
Roof’s uncle Carson Cowles said the gun, a .45-caliber pistol, had been a gift for the introverted young man’s 21st birthday.
“I said he was like 19 years old, he still didn’t have a job, a driver’s license or anything like that and he just stayed in his room a lot of the time,” Cowles said. “I don’t have any words for it. Nobody in my family had seen anything like this coming.”
A high school contemporary, John Mullins, told the Daily Beast: “He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don’t really take them seriously like that. You don’t really think of it like that.” But now, he said, it seemed that “the things he said were kind of not joking”.
Richard Cohen, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said Roof was not known to his organisation, which tracks hate crimes across the US, but based on his Facebook page he appeared to be a “disaffected white supremacist”.
Others expressed surprise at Roof’s crimes. “I never thought he’d do something like this,” a high school friend, Antonio Metze, told AP. “He had black friends.”
Meek’s mother, Kimberly Konzny, described him as a “sweet kid”. “He was quiet. He only had a few friends,” she said.
Though police say Roof lived in Columbia, South Carolina, he apparently had ties to the nearby Lexington area. Roof had a mixed educational record in the Lexington school district, attending White Knoll high school in both the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years.
Roof previously had at least two run-ins with the law. The Lexington county district attorney’s office confirmed that Roof had been charged with possession of a controlled substance in March but the circumstances surrounding that arrest remain unclear.
He was also arrested in April for misdemeanour trespassing in Lexington county.
On Thursday, police released Roof’s mugshot and moved him from police custody in North Carolina on his way back to face charges in South Carolina.
Reuters reports that Roof had lived with his older sister Amber and their father part-time until his father and stepmother divorced. A profile on TheKnot.com shows that Amber Roof is scheduled to be married on Sunday in Lexington, South Carolina, according to Reuters.
After his capture in Shelby, North Carolina, on Thursday morning – after a florist spotted and tailed his car – Roof was extradited to Charleston, where he is being held in isolation at a detention centre facing nine counts of murder, according to Live5 news.
On Thursday, President Barack Obama addressed the nation from the White House, expressing heartache at the killings and saying American communities have had to endure such tragedies too many times.
“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,” Obama said. “It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency – and it is in our power to do something about it.”
The Charleston mayor, Joseph P Riley Jr, said at a press conference: “In America, you know, we don’t let bad people like this get away with these dastardly deeds.”
The streets outside of Emanuel church were crowded with people on Thursday night who wished to pay their respects to the dead: Cynthia Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49; Clementa Pickney, 41; Tywanza Sanders, 26; Daniel Simmons, 74; Sharonda Singleton, 45, and Myra Thompson, 59.
“It’s just mind-boggling, I don’t have the right words to say it. Just shock,” said Marymargaret Givens, a 60-year-old housekeeper who works a few blocks away. “The way it happened. They were just innocent people. They were godly people.” She gazed back towards the church, said a prayer for the dead and then walked away.
“It was an evil that was incomprehensible,” said Pastor Cress Darwin, who had earlier led a prayer session at the Second Presbyterian Church next door to Emanuel AME. As throngs of worshippers poured out on to the streets, many in tears, Darwin continued: “But this community is coming together. Because of it we will be more vigilant in terms of our security. But because of who we serve, we will not stop welcoming in the stranger, because death is not the last word.”
Fifty-seven-year-old Marilyn Martin had attended school with Myra Thompson and had known Tywanza Sanders. She described Sanders as a “strong man with a good head on his shoulders”. The 26-year-old, she said, had just graduated college and “couldn’t wait to be a productive citizen”.
The African American community in Charleston and throughout the US is still reeling from the murder just 10 weeks earlier of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man shot dead by a North Charleston police officer just miles away from the site of Wednesday’s shooting.
The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church traces its roots to 1816 and is one of the largest black congregations south of Baltimore. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr addressed the church in 1962.