Dylann Storm Roof, 21, was given a gun for his birthday and wore a jacket bearing flags of apartheid-era nations

By Jeff Truesdell
Updated June 18, 2015 01:45 PM
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Credit: Lexington County (S.C.) Detention Center/AP

The young white man accused of killing nine people in a historic black church shouted a racist screed before he allegedly opened fire on the victims as they prayed, a family member of one of the victims told PEOPLE.

Dylann Storm Roof, 21, was arrested in North Carolina this morning 14 hours after the rampage at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, police have said. The FBI confirmed the identity of the suspect to PEOPLE.

Before he opened fire, a young parishioner at the church confronted him and tried to calm him down, Sylvia Stevenson Johnson, cousin of slain Rev. Clementa Pinckney, told PEOPLE.

Roof allegedly responded: “No. You’ve raped our women and you’ve stolen and you’ve taken over the country, so no, this must be done,” Johnson said.

As Roof opened fire, a parishioner and her young granddaughter dropped to the ground, covered themselves in blood and played dead in order to survive, Johnson said.

“She said her and her granddaughter and son said they would just play like they’re dead and just mingle within the blood because blood was everywhere,” Johnson said. “She said it was just awful. So I’m assuming he not only just shot once but shot each person several times.”

Johnson said she spoke to one of the survivors inside the church who relayed the horrifying story.

Authorities believe Roof acted alone. “We don’t have any reason to believe there was anyone else involved,” Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said Thursday at a news conference.

Who Is Dylann Storm Roof?

Adam Martin, 21, who knew the suspect, says he seemed normal.

“People who knew him are shocked,” he tells PEOPLE. “I wasn’t close with him but I had a ton of mutual friends. He is – or more like was – an average guy. He was quiet and stuck to himself but he liked to party. But most people do that age, like to party. Everyone is shocked and doesn’t understand. We went to the same school, middle school and high school. It’s a small place. I remember seeing him wear the same jacket.”

But local police records reveal Roof was arrested in late February for possession of a narcotic after employees at the Columbiana Mall reported him to authorities after he began asking them “out of the ordinary questions.”

“The mall security guard stated that the employees were stating that the subject was asking them how many associates were working, what time they closed, and what time they leave,” according to Columbia Police Department report obtained by PEOPLE.

Roof, who appeared nervous, told an officer that his parents were pressuring him to get a job. Asked if he requested an application from any of the stores, he told the officer he did not.

The officer found a white bottle containing multiple orange square strips in his right jacket pocket. Roof first told the office they were Listerine strips but later admitted they were Suboxone, which is used to treat opiate addiction.

Less than two months later, on April 26, Roof was taken into custody again outside the Columbiana Mall for violating a one-year ban to stay away.

In a Facebook photo, Roof is wearing a jacket sporting the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, two countries formerly ruled by white majorities.

“We will be looking at what motivated this individual, if he was the shooter, to commit this crime,” U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said at a news conference on Thursday. “We are not going to be revealing or discussing details of the investigation at this time.”

In other photos posted to Facebook, Roof is sitting on a car with a Confederate States flag on its license plate.

Roof’s uncle Carson Cowles told the Reuters news service that Roof’s father had given his son a .45 caliber pistol for his birthday this past spring. Cowles said he recognized Roof prior to his arrest in a photo that was released by Charleston police.

“Nobody in my family had seen anything like this coming,” Cowles said. “I said, if it is him, and when they catch him, he’s got to pay for this.”

He described the suspect as quiet and soft-spoken, and he said he previously had raised concern with his sister, who is Roof’s mother, that her son was too introverted.

“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.

Local court records reveal Roof was charged with a drug offense in March and with trespassing in April.

The Charleston mayor and police chief praised the swift arrest and spoke to their community’s loss of lives and trust.

“That awful person, that terrible human being, who would go into a place of worship where people were praying and kill them, is now in custody where he will always remain,” Mayor Joseph Riley said Thursday at a news conference.

RELATED VIDEO: Charleston Church Shooting Suspect Identified by FBI

“It is important for everyone wounded by this act – the church family members, community members and the people of America – that we hold sacred the places people come to practice their faith. The arrest of this awful man can begin the necessary process of healing together.”

Said Chief Mullen: “I am pleased we were able to solve this case quickly for the families, community and the state and apprehend this individual who committed this heinous, tragic crime.”

Choking up, the chief added, “People came together in this tragic situation, this horrific situation, and the cooperation we have received from the federal and state government has been unparalleled.”

The mayor said the community would organize a prayer vigil to mourn its losses.

“This is America,” he said. “We don’t let bad people like this get away.”

Reporting by EMILY ZAUZMER

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