CHARLESTON: The white man accused of gunning down nine black worshippers at a US church was ordered to remain in custody on murder charges, as authorities said they were investigating the killings as possible “domestic terrorism.”
The carnage at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston on Wednesday night was the worst attack on a US place of worship in decades and comes at a time of revived racial tensions in many parts of the country.
Suspected white supremacist Dylann Roof, 21, who reportedly had said that he “wanted to start a race war,” was charged with nine murders, in what police are treating as a hate crime.
Roof appeared in court by video link from an adjacent jail block for a 14-minute bail hearing, flanked by two guards in dark body armor, his first of what will be many court hearings.
He was dressed in standard prison garb and appeared subdued, bowing his head slightly, as Judge James Gosnell — in the presence of emotional relatives of several of the victims — asked him his age and if he had a job.
Asked by the judge if he was unemployed, Roof, his bowl-cut hair sagging in the heat and humidity, replied, “Yes, sir,” and verified his home address.
A detective confirmed Roof had two previous run-ins with the law for trespassing and a pending drugs possession charge.
Tearful relatives of the dead expressed grief but also forgiveness at the hearing, at which Roof was ordered held without bail.
“Every fiber in my body hurts and I’ll never be the same. Tywanza Sanders was my son. But he was my hero,” said Felicia Sanders.
Several media outlets reported that Roof confessed to investigators that he walked into “Mother Emanuel” — one of the oldest black churches in the country — and opened fire on a Bible study class.
His arrest warrant revealed how he allegedly shot the six women and three men multiple times with a high-caliber handgun then stood over a survivor to make a “racially inflammatory” statement.
A spokeswoman for the US Justice Department, Emily Pierce, said authorities were looking at the killings “from all angles.”
“This heartbreaking episode was undoubtedly designed to strike fear and terror into this community, and the department is looking at this crime from all angles, including as a hate crime and as an act of domestic terrorism,” Pierce said.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said she believed Roof should face the death penalty if convicted.
“This is an absolute hate crime,” Haley told NBC’s “Today” show.
“We will absolutely want him to have the death penalty. This is the worst hate that I’ve seen and the country has seen in a long time.”
Roof’s family, in their first public reaction to the killings, offered condolences to the dead and spoke of their “shock, grief and disbelief.”
They were “devastated,” a statement said.
The killings stunned genteel Charleston — where several hundred people, white and black, held a somber vigil on Friday evening — and also reignited concerns about gun control in the United States.
President Barack Obama said that America was “shocked and heartbroken,” but voiced confidence that its permissive gun laws would eventually change. He accused Congress of failing to act after a mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012 which killed 26 people, including 20 children.
“More than 11,000 Americans were killed by gun violence in 2013 alone. 11,000,” a strident Obama told US mayors in San Francisco.
“At the very least we should be able to talk about this issue as citizens. Without demonizing all gun owners who are overwhelmingly law abiding, but also without suggesting that any debate about this involves a wild-eyed plot to take everybody’s guns away,” he said.
“I’m not resigned. I have faith we will eventually do the right thing,” he added.
“We have the capacity to change, but we have to feel a sense of urgency about it.”
Roof was arrested in North Carolina on Thursday and brought back to South Carolina after he opted not to fight extradition.
Magistrate Gosnell set bail at $1 million on a weapons charge, but Roof must go before another judge if he wants to seek bail on the murder charges. His attorney said he accepted the arrangement.
Conflicting descriptions of Roof, a high-school dropout, have emerged.
He is alternately described as a quiet, even friendly loner who snapped — or a calculating white supremacist who supported segregation and had been planning for some time to kill blacks.
Two sources also confirmed to NBC News that Roof — whose Facebook page includes a picture of him wearing the flags of defunct white supremacist regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia — has confessed.
He told police that he “almost didn’t go through with it because everyone was so nice to him,” the sources told the network.