CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) – Law enforcement officials in Charleston, South Carolina, were searching on Thursday for a 21-year-old white gunman who killed nine people in a historic African-American church including a black state senator in an attack the U.S. Department of Justice called a hate crime.
The FBI identified the shooter as Dylann Roof of Columbia, South Carolina. An uncle of Roof’s said he recognised the man in the surveillance photo as his nephew.
“The more I look at him, the more I’m convinced, that’s him,” Carson Cowles, 56, told Reuters in a phone interview.
Law enforcement agents were present at Roof’s home, Cowles said, adding he believed the shooter’s father had recently bought him a .45-caliber handgun as a birthday present.
The victims, six females and three males, included Reverend Clementa Pinckney, who was the church’s pastor and a Democratic member of the state Senate, according to colleagues.
The U.S. Department of Justice opened a hate crime investigation into the shooting, which follows a string of racially charged killings that have prompted waves of protest across the United States over the past year and sparked the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
Roof sat with churchgoers inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church for about an hour on Wednesday before opening fire, Police Chief Gregory Mullen said.
He reloaded five times even as victims pleaded with him to stop, a relative of Pinckney’s said. Sylvia Johnson, a cousin, told MSNBC that a survivor told her the gunman reloaded five times during the attack. Pinckney tried to talk him out of it, she said.
“He just said, ‘I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country,” Johnson said.
Demonstrations have rocked New York, Baltimore, Ferguson, Missouri and other cities following police killings of unarmed black men including Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and Michael Brown.
A white police officer was charged with murder after he shot an unarmed black man in April in neighbouring North Charleston.
The gunman is extremely dangerous, Mullen said, and police did not have a sense of where he might be.
‘WHERE ARE YOU SAFE?’
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.
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.
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is seeking the Republican presidential nomination, said he was praying for the families of the victims of the shooting.
“There are bad people in this world who are motivated by hate,” he said in a statement. “Every decent person has been victimized by the hateful, callous disregard for human life shown by the individual who perpetrated these horrible acts.”