South Carolina massacre suspect seemed troubled, had past brushes with police

 Suspected shooter Dylann Roof, 21, following his arrest on June 18, 2015.
Suspected shooter Dylann Roof, 21, following his arrest on June 18, 2015.REUTERS

CHARLESTON, United States (REUTERS) - His uncle worried he was cooped up in his room too much. The few images of him found easily online suggest he had a fascination with white supremacy. And for his birthday this year, his father bought the young man a pistol, the uncle said.

Dylann Roof, 21, was arrested on Thursday on suspicion of having fatally shot nine people at a historic African-American church in South Carolina on Wednesday.

Those who know him described a withdrawn, troubled young man.

Roof himself told a police officer who was arresting him earlier this year for illegal possession of prescription painkillers that his parents were pressuring him to get a job.

Roof’s uncle, Carson Cowles, recalled telling his sister, the suspect’s mother, several years ago that he was worried about Roof, and that the “quiet, soft-spoken boy” was too introverted.

“I said he was like 19 years old, he still didn’t have a job, a driver’s licence or anything like that and he just stayed in his room a lot of the time,” Cowles said in a telephone interview.

He said he tried to “mentor” his nephew. “He didn’t like that, and me and him kind of drifted apart,” Cowles said.

Cowles, 56, said Roof’s father gave him a .45-caliber pistol for his birthday this year, Cowles said.

“I actually talked to him on the phone briefly for just a few moments and he was saying, ‘well I’m outside target practicing with my new gun,’” Cowles said, describing a phone call around the time of Roof’s birthday in April.

“Nobody in my family had seen anything like this coming,” Cowles said, speaking shortly before news of Roof’s arrest.

“If it is him, and when they catch him, he’s got to pay for this.”

MALL INCIDENTS

In February, Roof unnerved employees working at the Columbiana Centre shopping mall in Columbia, South Carolina, by asking what they told police were unusual questions about staffing levels.

A patrolling police officer was called over. Roof, becoming increasingly nervous, told him “his parents were pressuring him to get a job,” according to a Columbia Police Department incident report.

The officer asked to search him and found an unlabeled bottle filled with strips of buprenorphine, an opioid painkiller that is sometimes misused by people addicted to opioid drugs, which include a range of substances from heroin to oxycodone.

The incident report said Roof tried to pass them off as breath-freshening strips before admitting that a friend had given the prescription-only drug to him, and the officer arrested him for possession of a controlled substance.

The case appeared to still be pending, according to county court records.

Columbiana Centre banned Roof for a year, but two months later, police were called to the mall again. Roof, described as 1.75m tall and weighing 54kg, was arrested in the parking lot for trespassing. His car was turned over to his mother, and the mall increased the ban to three years.

It was not immediately clear whether Roof had a lawyer.

JACKET WITH APARTHEID-ERA FLAGS

A Facebook profile apparently belonging to Roof was created earlier this year.

The only public photograph on the page is a blurry snap of him stood in front of winter-bare trees, looking glumly at the camera, bowl-cut brown hair falling over his forehead.

In the picture, he wears a black jacket that prominently features the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, from when the two African countries were ruled by the white minority.


Suspected gunman Dylann Roof. 

The page lists him as having a little over 80 Facebook friends on Thursday morning, but that number appeared to be dropping, perhaps as others chose to sever their online ties with him.

One of the friends, Derrick “D-Gutta” Pearson, wrote on his own Facebook page on Thursday morning that he was “wondering why I woke up to 15 friend requests,” adding that he didn’t know where Roof was.

Pearson warned people to stay away from Roof if they saw him, writing that it was “obvious lives do not matter to him.”

Pearson also published a photo that appeared to show Roof sitting on the hood of a black car with a licence plate that says “Confederate States of America”, a reference to the pro-slavery forces from the US Civil War.

“That’s his car and him,” Pearson wrote.

The US Department of Justice said federal authorities would investigate Wednesday’s attack as a hate crime, or one motivated by racism or other prejudice.

Roof grew up shuttling between his parents’ homes in South Carolina, according to his uncle. His father, Ben Roof, runs his own construction business, and he remarried after divorcing Dylann Roof’s mother.

Roof and his older sister, Amber, lived part of the time with their father and the father’s wife, Paige, until Ben and Paige divorced.

Amber Roof, 27, is engaged to be married and a profile on TheKnot.com shows her wedding is scheduled for Sunday in Lexington, South Carolina.

A woman who answered the cellphone of the suspect’s mother Amelia Roof, also known as Amy, declined to comment on Thursday morning.

“We will be doing no interviews ever,” she said, before hanging up.