Nine people were killed late Wednesday at a historic African-American church in Charleston, S.C. after a white gunman walked in during a prayer meeting and began shooting. Authorities have classified the Charleston shooting as a hate crime, indicating that authorities do indeed know who the individual is or because it was committed in a church.
Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said at a press conference early Thursday that the gunman was a clean-shaven, approximately 21 year-old with sandy blonde hair and a slender build. He said the suspect was wearing a gray sweatshirt with blue jeans and Timberland boots, calling him “extremely dangerous.” The suspect’s car had what authorities are calling a “very distinct” license plate.
“This is a tragedy that no community should have to experience,” Mullen said. “It is senseless and unfathomable in today’s society that someone would walk into a church during a prayer meeting and take their lives. This tragedy that we are addressing right now is indescribable. No one in this community will ever forget this night.”
The church is a well-known historic black American church that traces with roots dating back to 1816. After several churches split from Charleston’s Methodist Episcopal church, the congregation became part of the Underground Railroad that helped runaway slaves get to the North. Denmark Vesey, one of the founders of the church, even tried to organize a slave revolt in 1822 but was caught and the church was burned to the ground. Parishioners worshipped underground until after the Civil War.
Among the dead was the church’s pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, 41, who had been a pastor since he was 18. Pinckney was the youngest African-American elected to the South Carolina legislature when he won office in 1996 at age 23 and had been a state senator since 2000.
“We know that it was definitely a hate crime, but it is just to early to know if it was race-related,” said Samuel Rivers Jr., a personal friend of Mr. Pinckney. “To pick it out a say that it is race-related at this particular moment is unfair.”
Mr. Rivers called for calm and urged everyone to wait for the facts. He was joined by Bishop E.W. Jackson, Bishop of THE CALLED church in Chesapeake, Virginia, who said it may turn out that this attack was targeting Christians. At this point, we just don’t yet know the facts.
“We’re urging people to wait for the facts, don’t jump to conclusions,” Jackson said. “But let me tell you, I’m deeply concerned that this gunmen chose to go into a church because there does seem to be a rising hostility toward Christians in this country.”
But soon after Wednesday night’s shooting, a group of pastors huddled together praying in a circle across the street where community organizer Christopher Cason was gathered. Cason told the Associated Press he felt certain the shootings were racially motivated.
“I am very tired of people telling me that I don’t have the right to be angry,” Cason said. “I am very angry right now.”
Authorities said the shooting took place at approximately 9 p.m. (local) ET, but would not immediately confirm the identities of the victims. Mullen said there were 6 females and 3 males among the dead. PPD has learned that the suspect let a female go free in order to tell the story about what had happened, though we do not know what else may have been said or transpire. Another two victims, including one child, allegedly pretended to play dead in order to survive, which they appear to have done.
“The only reason that someone could walk into a church and shoot people praying is out of hate,” said Charleston Mayor Joseph P. Riley. “It is the most dastardly act that one could possibly imagine, and we will bring that person to justice … This is one hateful person.”
Dot Scott, the president of the Charleston NAACP, told the Post and Couriernewspaper that she had spoken with a female survivor who said the gunman walked into the church and briefly sat down before standing up and opening fire. Scott said the gunman told the woman he was letting her live so she could tell others what had happened.
“There is no greater coward than a criminal who enters a house of God and slaughters innocent people engaged in the study of scripture,” NAACP President and CEO Cornell Brooks said in a statement Thursday. “Today I mourn as an AME minister, as a student and teacher of scripture, as well as a member of the NAACP.”
Republican Sen. Tim Scott, the South’s first black senator elected since Reconstruction, posted a series of Twitter messages on the tragedy.
This senseless tragedy at a place of worship-where we come together to laugh,love&rejoice in God's name-is despicable&can't be understood
— Tim Scott (@SenatorTimScott) June 18, 2015
“My heart is breaking for Charleston and South Carolina tonight,” another one of them read.
South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley issued a statement calling the shooting a “senseless tragedy,” but cautioned that the community and those looking on should wait until we learn more before turning a bad situation into a worse one.
“While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivated anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another,” Haley said. “Please join us in lifting up the victims and their families with our love and prayers.”
Only about two hours after the Charleston shooting took place a man matching the suspect’s description was detained for a short period of time near the scene. However, the man, identified as 21-year-old David Corrie, was later let go by police. He told the Post and Courier he was walking out of a Shell gas station’s convenience store when police forced him to get down on the ground and handcuffed him.
Anyone with information on the suspect’s whereabouts is asked to contact Charleston Police dispatch at 843-743-7200 or the FBI at 800-CALL-FBI