He didn’t start shooting right away.
The white man spent an hour in a prayer meeting at the historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, on Wednesday night before he opened fire, Charleston police Chief Greg Mullen said Thursday morning.
Unfathomable” shooting at a South Carolina church
Nine people were killed — six females and three males, Mullen said. Three people survived, including a woman who received a chilling message from the shooter.
“Her life was spared, and (she was) told, I’m not going to kill you, I’m going to spare you, so you can tell them what happened,” Charleston NAACP President Dot Scott told CNN. Scott said she heard this from the victims’ family members.
The suspect was still at large Thursday as law enforcement officers combed the region.
Federal authorities have opened a hate crime investigation into the shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the oldest AME church in the South, the Department of Justice said.
“The only reason someone would walk into a church and shoot people that were praying is hate,” Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said.
Eight churchgoers died at the scene; a ninth at a hospital, police said.
Among the victims was the church’s politically active pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, his cousin, South Carolina state Sen. Kent Williams, told CNN.
Pinckney was also a state senator and one of the black community’s spokesmen after the slaying of an unarmed man by a North Charleston police officer earlier this year.
There were 13 people inside the church when the shooting happened — the shooter, the nine people who were killed and three survivors, South Carolina state Sen. Larry Grooms, who was briefed by law enforcement, told CNN. Two of the survivors were not harmed, he said.
The shooter spent about an hour inside the church attending a regular Wednesday night prayer meeting before he started shooting. It was not clear if the man targeted any individual.
“We don’t know if anybody was targeted other than the church itself,” he said.
Authorities said they were shocked not only by the killings but that the violence occurred in a house of worship.
“People in prayer Wednesday evening. A ritual, a coming together, praying, worshiping God. An awful person to come in and shoot them is inexplicable,” Riley said.
Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has been a presence in Charleston since 1816, when African-American members of Charleston’s Methodist Episcopal Church formed their own congregation after a dispute over burial grounds.
It was burned to the ground at one point, but rebuilt. Throughout its history, it overcame obstacle after obstacle — destroyed by an earthquake, banned by the state. But its church members persevered, making it the largest African-American church in terms of seating space in Charleston today.
Mullen said video cameras at the church show the suspect is in his early 20s and stands 5 feet, 9 inches tall. “He has on a very distinctive sweatshirt as well as the vehicle, with a very distinctive license plate,” the chief said.
Police described the gunman as clean-shaven with a slender build and sandy blond hair. He was wearing a gray sweatshirt, blue jeans and Timberland boots.
On Thursday morning, police handed out images of the man and his car taken from surveillance footage and asked for the public’s help in identifying him. Officials say they think he is still in the Charleston area, but they have contacted law enforcement authorities elsewhere to be on the lookout.
“This is a very dangerous individual,” Mullen said. “He should not be approached by anyone. Call law enforcement if you recognize the individual or the car so we can take appropriate action.”
Police are “going through all kinds of video” and trying to identify any private or public video that may show anything useful for the investigation, Mullen said.
Late Wednesday night, news cameras showed officers taking a man matching that description into custody, but he was later released.
A call for healing
The killing put the nation’s spotlight once again on the Charleston region. Several months ago, Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was fatally shot in the back by a North Charleston police officer, a killing that was captured on video.
Pinckney backed a bill to make body cameras mandatory for all police officers in South Carolina.
“Body cameras help to record what happens. It may not be the golden ticket, the golden egg, the end-all-fix-all, but it helps to paint a picture of what happens during a police stop,” Pinckney said in April.
Mayor Riley, who’s seen Charleston go through ups and downs during his 40 years as mayor, said the city must immediately start the healing process.
“We can catch this no-good, horrible person and see that he pays the price,” he said. “And then what we will do, and what this community has always done, is we are going to put our arms around that church and that church family.”
After the shooting, church and community members converged on the area to pray in the street, often while holding hands.
Dot Scott, the NAACP leader, said family and friends of the victims gathered at the Embassy Suites motel near the church after the shooting. The city set up a victims’ assistance center there.
“There were at least 50 or more people there,” she said. “There were families of the victims, grandchildren, council members, and a bunch of people there.”
Scott said that’s where she heard about the shooter sparing the woman in the church.
“I did not hear this verbatim from the almost victim, I heard it from at least half a dozen other folks that were there and family of the victims,” she said. “There seems to be no question that this is what the shooter said.”
‘Sick to our stomachs’
The church sits in an area of Charleston densely packed with houses of worship and well-preserved old buildings. The streets of the neighborhood are normally filled with tourists.
Charleston, as several church leaders pointed out, is known as the “Holy City” because of its numerous churches and tolerant attitude toward different denominations.
Early Thursday morning, residents stood in circles, hands clasped and heads bowed, as they prayed.
“Like everybody out here, we’re sick to our stomachs that this could happen in a church,” said Rep. Dave Mack, a friend of the church’s pastor.
They called for justice, but also for calm. Theirs is a strong community, they said, and this incident wouldn’t tear them apart.
The president of the NAACP expressed his outrage over the shooting.
“There is no greater coward than a criminal who enters a house of God and slaughters innocent people engaged in the study of scripture,” Cornell William Brooks said.
Republican presidential candidates canceled campaign events in South Carolina. Jeb Bush canceled a scheduled town hall in Charleston on Thursday.
“As the #Charleston police deem this horrific act a hate crime,” the King Center tweeted, “we pray vigorously that this person’s hate does not cultivate more hate.”
CNN’s Ralph Ellis wrote from Atlanta, and Ed Payne reported and wrote from Atlanta.