A clerical error at the Lexington County jail was apparently the first of several mishaps that allowed accused Charleston church killer Dylann Roof avoid an FBI check that would likely have foiled his attempt to purchase a deadly Glock handgun from a West Columbia gun store.
Lexington County Sheriff Jay Koon said Monday that after Roof was arrested by a Columbia police department officer on drug charges on Feb. 28 and booked into the Lexington County Jail, a clerk wrongly listed the Lexington County Detention Center as the arresting agency.
Although a Lexington County corrections officer caught the error on March 2 and made an internal charge that properly identified Columbia police department as the arresting agency, that information was not forwarded to SLED, which is supposed to then forward it to the FBI, Koon said.
That omission came at the start of a complicated record-checking procedure involving state and local law enforcement agencies, the FBI, internet data bases and gun store operators. The breakdown allowed Roof to purchase a .45 caliber handgun on April 15.
There were two other contributing factors:
▪ Roof was originally listed as being charged with a felony drug charge. But Sheriff Koon and Solicitor Donnie Myers said the correct charge – possession of Schedule III drugs – against Roof was a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of six months in jail. According to an arrest warrant, Roof was found with an “unlabeled pill bottle containing multiple orange in color strips believed to be suboxone.” Suboxone produces euphoria, is addictive and can be ground into a powder and snorted.
▪ Roof was arrested at Columbiana Mall. The popular mall, just off I-26 at Harbison Boulevard, is under the jurisdiction of the Columbia police department. In fact, it was a Columbia officer who arrested Roof.
However, for criminal purposes, Columbia police generally transport the people they arrest to the Lexington county jail, but not to Richland County’s Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center. Moreover, even though Columbia criminal cases are generally prosecuted by 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson’ office, arrests made at Columbiana Mall are prosecuted by the 11th Circuit Solicitor’s office.
“You don’t know how confusing this is,” Myers said, adding that it is easy to misunderstand which agencies are handling what cases in the Columbiana Mall area. Roof’s arrest warrants are kept in the Lexington County clerk of court’s office.
Nationwide, the FBI maintains a collection of databases called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, which goes by the acronym NICS, pronounced “nix.”
When a person goes to a federally licensed gun store, he is required to fill out a federal firearms form with biographical information. Gun shop operators then send the information to the FBI NICS center, where an examiner checks to see if the purchaser has any sort of criminal charge. That check is made at the time of purchase, and the gun store owner can usually find out within minutes if a gun can be sold to a purchaser.
Questions on the form include: Are you under indictment or information (warrant) for a felony? and Are you an unlawful user of any controlled substance? Answering “yes” to either is grounds for the FBI to tell the gun store to deny a gun purchase.
Last week, FBI director James Comey said Roof should not have been able to purchase the Glock .45 caliber handgun used in the killings of nine African Americans at the Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston on June 17.
At that time, Comey appeared to place much of the responsibility for failing to identify Roof’s complete criminal record on an unnamed FBI examiner who handles queries from gun shop owners about prospective purchasers.
Because of incorrect information in the FBI’s data bases about the arresting agency, that examiner was not able to ascertain which agency arrested Roof and what the charges were, Comey said.
Had the examiner been able to see the charges against Roof, she would have told the gun shop not to sell the gun to Roof, Comey said.
Specifically, Comey said, the charges against Roof indicated that he was an unlawful drug user, since he was charged with being in possession of suboxone.
On April 11, when Roof tried to buy the handgun at Shooter’s Choice in West Columbia, the FBI had received some but not all of the February arrest information about Roof.
So when the gun shop operator forwarded Roof’s prospective purchase information to the FBI national database checking system in West Virginian, the FBI initially notified the gun shop to delay Roof’s purchase while the FBI sought more information to clarify Roof’s situation.
The FBI only has three working days to deny the request. If the request isn’t denied the gun store can go ahead and sell the gun to the buyer. So several business days after April 11, when Roof first tried to buy the handgun, the gun store – having not heard back from the FBI – sold Roof the gun.
Although Lexington County has now acknowledged making an initial error, Comey said last week he has “directed a full review of the matter” and given his Inspection Division 30 days to report back to him.
“I not only want to understand all the facts, but I want to know if there are ways to improve our process, our procedures and our training,” Comey said.
In a statement Monday, Koon said his Lexington County jail has made sure the same error can’t happen again.
“After reviewing our booking procedures, we’ve made changes to ensure the proper arresting agency is noted in an arrest file,” Koon’s statement said. “We’re using technology to implement safeguards that will make sure we know when discrepancies have been entered.”