Dylann Roof couldn’t find his gun.
It was one night in recent weeks, a friend remembers, when he called his mother asking if it was at her house.
“She was saying that she didn’t have his gun,” said Lindsey Fry, who said she overheard Roof’s conversation that night with his mother. Roof was staying at the home of Fry’s fiance, Joey Meek, in Red Bank.
Then, “he called his dad, and he was like, ‘Does mom have my gun?’ And his dad said she does have it – she was scared that he was going to hurt himself,” Fry said.
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“Ever since that day, I knew there was something weird, because your parents don’t just say that for no reason, you know?”
In hindsight, Roof’s parents’ concern appears more than justified. He is charged in the violent murders of nine parishioners at Charleston’s historic Emanuel AME Church on June 17.
What else does hindsight reveal about the 21-year-old alleged mass shooter? What path did he take from being known as a quiet young man to an accused racist killer who rained death and sorrow onto a church and a nation?
Anecdotes unmask personality details. Records chronicle pieces of a disjointed family history. An as yet unverified, racially charged online manifesto opens a door to unmitigated hate. Then come expressions of shock and disbelief from those who know him – and tight lips from those who share his name and know him best.
Even the varied strokes that have emerged in the portrait of Dylann Roof don’t paint a full picture of how and why a man felt led to put fatal bullets into nine innocents.
A changed man
When Roof reconnected with his childhood friend Meek last month, something in him had changed.
Roof reached out to Meek via Facebook in early May, Meek said, asking how Meek had been and where he was. Meek and Roof were one-time neighbors when Roof lived with his mother in Red Bank, in Lexington County. But they lost contact about four years ago, Meek said. When Roof contacted him, Meek said he welcomed his childhood friend into his home.
But Roof was not the same friend Meek had known from their childhood. Roof always had been quiet, Meek said, but this time he was different.
“I was trying to just treat him like he was the same friend and treat him like he was the same person,” Meek said in an interview with The State newspaper last week. “But people can change in that short time, and I just didn’t see it” while it was happening.
Meek was one of the first to call law enforcement June 18 after he saw the surveillance images released of Roof before his capture.
When the news broke of the shooting, Meek’s fiancee, Fry, was scared, she said. She didn’t know if the man who allegedly just killed nine people was going to make his way back to their house. They were his only friends at the time, she said.
“I mean, what do you do when someone who just killed a bunch of people shows up at your house?” Fry said. “What are you supposed to do?”
Meek said he doesn’t know what happened after he and Roof lost contact, sometime after Roof left White Knoll High School in the middle of repeating the 9th grade and enrolled in Dreher High in downtown Columbia.
Meek told CNN that he didn’t know it then, but Roof wanted “to start a race war.”
“He wanted it to be white with white, and black with black,” Meek said. “He had it in his mind, and he didn’t really let nobody know (what he was going to do).”
Meek told The State that Roof hadn’t gotten involved with any racial groups that he knew of. He said Roof did occasionally make racist comments. But Meek said he didn’t take that seriously.
Meek confirmed to The State what his friend Christon Scriven, who is African-American, told police and other media outlets, that on June 10, while the three of them were getting drunk on vodka, Roof announced plans to carry out a mass shooting seven days later at the College of Charleston.
Though they thought the talk was drunken bluster, Scriven and Meek were concerned enough that they went out to Roof’s car and took Roof’s handgun, hiding it until they all sobered up.
They gave it back to Roof at Fry’s urging. She said Meek was on probation and she didn’t want him to get caught carrying a gun.
Meek and Fry, both of whom are white, have said that, in hindsight, they feel guilt about the shooting.
“I feel we could have done something and prevented this whole thing,” Fry told The New York Times.
The FBI interrupted Meek’s and Fry’s interview with The State on Thursday to tell them they needed her tablet computer. They would come to wherever she was to get it, they said.
“I don’t know what else I can tell them,” Meek said of his seemingly endless questioning by media and authorities, all still working to piece together the puzzle.
Roof’s family has mostly evaded contact in the week and a half since his arrest, leaving unanswered questions and curious gaps in the man’s history.
The family released a statement last week acknowledging the lack of clarity in Roof’s history and asking for more time for healing in the wake of the tragedy. They will talk later, they say.
Little is known about Roof’s mother, Amelia “Amy” Roof, other than her Cowles family lineage and her previous marriage to Roof’s father, Franklin Bennett “Benn” Roof.
According to Richland County Family Court records, Amy and Benn were married in February 1988 and divorced in 1991 – three years before Dylann was born in 1994. The couple also had a daughter together, Amber, born in June 1988.
A friend of Amy’s said Dylann lived with his mother in downtown Columbia’s Rosewood neighborhood at one point in his childhood. Lexington County court records show that an Amelia Roof was evicted in December 2009 from a Red Bank home not far from Meek’s. Roof’s most recent known official address – the one he confirmed before a Charleston magistrate – matches an address shared by Amelia Roof and another man in lower Richland County.
Amy Roof’s brother, Carson Cowles, who lives near Gaston in Lexington County, identified himself as Roof’s uncle and said he called authorities to identify his nephew once the manhunt was underway.
“The whole world is going to be looking at his family who raised this monster,” Cowles told the Washington Post.
“He’s guilty as hell,” he told the L.A. Times. “He’ll get no sympathy from us, any of us.”
Neither Dylann Roof’s father, a contractor, nor his grandfather, attorney Joseph Roof, would talk with The State last week. Both live in Columbia.
At Benn Roof’s low-swung bungalow where the Earlewood and Elmwood Park neighborhoods meet, the father opened his front door long enough to tell a reporter that John Delgado, a Columbia criminal defense lawyer, would give out family statements.
At Joseph Roof’s four-story house built on a steep hillside near the city’s Earlewood Park, an elderly man’s voice said, “You’ll have to talk to John Delgado.” Then silence.
Delgado did not respond to numerous efforts to reach him.
Both Roofs’ houses flew American flags out front.
A long-time friend of Benn Roof’s who didn’t want to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation said Friday the family is “hurting just like everybody else.”
He described Benn Roof as “not a bad guy at all. He’s a very loving person.”
Benn Roof was remarried in November 1999, to a woman named Paige Roof, who in 2009 Richland County divorce records described a controlling husband who abused her while she cared for his three children, including Dylann.
The family built a home on Park Street in Earlewood that was featured as part of a downtown tour of homes in fall 2005.
The family and the 3,000-square-foot, Florida-style home, complete with a backyard pool, were featured in an article in The State newspaper.
Among the photographs with the article is one of an 11-year-old boy’s bedroom. Dylann Roof’s room was tidy and decorated with pillows. It had a safari theme.
His father and stepmother showed off the home’s features as well as their his-and-hers motorcycles.
Shortly afterward, Benn Roof abruptly moved the family to the Florida Keys, according to Paige Roof ’s affidavit in the divorce filings. She lamented the loss of her dream home, saying she didn’t have a say in its sale. It’s unclear whether Dylann went to Florida with them.
Friends who wrote affidavits on behalf of Paige in the couples’ divorce described her as a loving caregiver to the couple’s daughter, Morgan, born in January 2000, as well as Benn’s two children, Dylann and Amber. Paige treated her stepchildren as if they were her own, friends attested, despite what appeared to be a tumultuous relationship with their father.
“Benn was tough on Paige,” wrote Sally Moore, who said in her affidavit that she and Paige had been friends for more than 20 years, since middle school. “He called her several times a day to check up on her and find out what she was doing and what was for dinner, if he should make it home.”
Moore wrote that Benn would criticize Paige with insults about her cleaning and spending.
“Paige has lived for 10 years with rules to follow as a wife of Bennette (sic) Roof,” Moore wrote in her 2009 affidavit.
Paige Roof’s mother, Patricia Hastings, described her daughter as loving her two stepchildren “unconditionally as her own” in a 2009 letter included in Paige’s divorce proceedings.
“I was afraid that love for these children clouded her judgment in getting involved with Bennett Roof,” Hastings wrote.
Paige often took Dylann to school, activities and church instead of his parents, Hastings’ letter said.
The divorce cut Dylann off from his stepmother.
Hastings told The State newspaper last week that Dylann largely has disappeared from her life since her daughter’s separation and divorce from Benn, finalized in 2011.
“I can’t remember the last time I actually laid eyes on him,” she said.
Both her daughter and she have learned little bits of what was going on with Dylann from his sister Morgan, she said.
“(Paige) had not seen him for such a long time that she didn’t realize his voice had changed” in undergoing puberty, Hastings said.
Paige is bed-bound, Hastings said, awaiting surgery for muscular and back disc problems. “We’re very worried about her health.”
The trail to tragedy
Sometime between Paige and Benn’s marital struggles and the Charleston church massacre, Roof became a high-school drop-out, an at least sometimes drug-user and a white supremacist.
Roof attended a number of schools in the Midlands, including Rosewood Elementary and Hand Middle near downtown Columbia and Carolina Springs Middle and White Knoll High in Lexington County. He apparently dropped out of Columbia’s Dreher High in 2009.
His whereabouts and activities since then remain largely a mystery until February of this year, when he was arrested at Columbiana Centre mall and charged with drug possession for having a bottle of what police believe to be unprescribed Suboxone pills, which are commonly used to treat opiate addiction.
At some point since February when the website www.lastrhodesian.com was created and registered to Roof’s name, Roof purportedly penned a racially charged, 2,000-plus word online manifesto for the site. In it, he explains his belief that African-Americans are inferior to whites, that blacks were happy when they lived under slavery and that whites need to take the country back. Blacks are “the biggest problem of America,” the manifesto author writes.
“The event that truly awakened me was the Trayvon Martin case,” the manifesto reads. Martin, a black teenager, was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, a mixed-race Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida in February 2012. “It was obvious that Zimmerman was in the right. But more importantly this prompted me to type in the words ‘black on White crime’ into Google, and I have never been the same since that day.”
Roof did have a recent string of interactions with police.
In mid-March, Roof was questioned by police near downtown Columbia. He was spotted by a police officer who had arrested him just weeks before at an area mall. The officer, who was off-duty, told other officers Roof was loitering in Earlewood Park in a parked car that officers searched and found part of an AR-15 assault rifle and six 40-bullet banana-style ammo clips.
He was not charged with anything; the Columbia Police Department said he had broken no laws.
Roof told the officer he wanted to buy an AR-15 – a gun that would have been legal for him to own – and take it to a firing range but didn’t have enough money.
In April, Roof was charged with trespassing after he was found in Columbiana Centre’s parking lot, after being banned from there for a year, and he received an additional three-year ban.
That same month he turned 21 and, by varying reports, was either given or purchased a gun for his birthday. An assistant manager at Shooter’s Choice in West Columbia, where at least one media report has said the gun was bought that was used in the Charleston church shootings, declined comment last week, saying the store does not release information about customer purchases.
Roof stayed with Meek and Meek’s mother, Kimberly Konzny, on and off at their Red Bank home over the past several weeks, they said.
Konzny said Roof dressed normally, had a quiet demeanor and never acted out in public. And while he didn’t voice many of his emotions, she added, he would go to his car when he became upset to smoke a cigarette and listen to opera music to calm down.
Of the drunken threat of violence against a college campus, Konzny told The State, “There are those nine times out of 10 that people are just talking. But then there is that one time where they are serious.”
On June 17, Roof walked into Emanuel AME, authorities say.
He sat for an hour among a group of a dozen parishioners, studying the Bible and praying together.
Among them were the church’s pastor, state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, 41; Cynthia Hurd, 54; Susie Jackson, 87; Ethel Lance, 70; the Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49; Tywanza Sanders, 26; the Rev. Daniel Simmons Sr., 74; the Rev. Sharonda Singleton, 45; and Myra Thompson, 59.
And then, authorities say, Roof opened fire.
“I have to do it,” he told his victims. “You have to go.”
Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307. Reach Cahill at (803) 771-8305.
Staff writers Tim Flach, Sammy Fretwell and John Monk contributed.