Already in his young life, 21-year-old Dylann Storm Roof was a study in contradictions.
He lived in this tiny central South Carolina community, which is 90% black, and former classmates said he had many African American friends. But they also said he made racist jokes.
John Mullins, a former high school classmate, said that Roof didn’t seem dangerous but that he would make comments sometimes that were troubling, talking about “Southern pride.”
“It was just jokes he would make, racist jokes,” Mullins said.
But now Roof will face murder and hate-crime charges in Wednesday night’s slaughter of nine African Americans who had gathered for a Bible class inside a historic church in Charleston, 100 miles away. And authorities were scrambling to sketch out a profile of a man who, even in an age of continuous self-advertisement and public sharing, left little trail.
He apparently repeated ninth grade and had recently been arrested for petty crimes, and it’s unclear whether he had a job.
Many who knew Roof are baffled.
Reached by phone Thursday afternoon, Roof’s uncle Carson Cowles said he felt “blindsided” and was “still trying to deal with all of this.”
On Facebook, Roof’s profile is gothic dark, its singular politics racially suggestive.
The profile photo shows Roof, skinny and pale, looking glum and menacing, in a swamp alone. His dark jacket bears emblems popular with white supremacists.
They’re flags that flew over two African countries when they were ruled by whites, one from apartheid-era South Africa, the other from Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.
Twice this year Roof was arrested in Columbia, S.C.
On Feb. 28, security at the Columbiana mall called police because Roof was dressed in “all black” and acting bizarrely in several stores, according to reports.
In that incident, an officer questioned Roof, who consented to be searched, and police recovered several strips of Suboxone, a powerful medication used to treat addiction to heroin and painkillers, in his possession. He was later arrested and banned from the mall.
Chris Spears, manager of the Shoe Department store, said in an interview that Roof approached his assistant while she was working.
“He was asking her all kinds of personal questions, wanting to know work schedules. She was busy working and she felt uncomfortable, so she called security and they came and got him,” Spears said. He said Roof was “wanting to basically see how we ran things” and acted “like he was on drugs ... really creepy.”
On April 26, Roof was arrested a second time for trespassing at the mall, court records show. Roof turned 21 that month, and authorities say he received a gun for his birthday from his father.
After Roof was tied to the shooting, a friend shared on Facebook a photo of him seated on a black car, dressed in black pants and a white T-shirt, his hands placed on his hat as he peers down over his sunglasses. Between his set-apart legs is the front license plate, reading “Confederate States of America.”
“This is what you need to be on the lookout for...thats his car and him...NO i dont know where he is,” wrote Derrick D. Gutta Pearson. He added, “NO i dont talk to him.”
Charleston church shooting victims: Who they wereAlthough Roof listed White Knoll High School on Facebook, over the years he moved back and forth between schools in two counties, according to school records.
He repeated his ninth-grade year at White Knoll in Lexington County, but transferred to Dreher High School in Richland County in March 2010 to finish his freshman year. Neither school district had any further records of him.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, in an interview with CNN, said his niece knew Roof. “My sister ... said that my niece Emily went to school with him in the eighth grade and went to the same high school. I don’t know if he finished high school but [he was a] strange, disturbed young man.”
Roof has about 80 Facebook friends, many of them African American. One of them, Pearson, posted about waking up to find 15 friend requests, all asking about Roof. He advised anyone who saw Roof to call the authorities.
“It’s obvious lives do not matter to him,” Pearson posted.
On Thursday, the atmosphere was quiet in Eastover.
On the stretch of Garners Ferry Road where authorities say Roof lived, two adjacent homes sit along a four-lane highway, both with pick-up trucks and an American flag, common in this rural area of farmers and soldiers who work at the nearby McEntire National Guard Base.
Kim Fleming, the manager of a nearby Mr. Bunky’s Market, said that she had seen Roof shop there but that he did not stand out at the general store, restaurant and gas station complex, set among the pine trees, that sells bumper stickers with the slogan “Where the Hell is Eastover at ...?”
“He’s just a normal customer,” she said of Roof, unable to recall when he came in or what he bought.
Another local, a man working at a nearby roadside market selling farm produce and boiled peanuts, had a different take. “He ain’t from around here, I can promise you that,” he said.
At the end of the phone interview, Roof’s uncle Cowles said, “I’ve done said everything I can say.... I’m still trying to put this all together. My family is devastated.
“God bless us,” Cowles said before hanging up.
Bierman reported from Eastover, Glionna from Las Vegas and Mejia from Los Angeles. Times staff writers Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Richard A. Serrano contributed to this report.