South Carolina

Police records reveal shocked reactions, chaos of Charleston church massacre

By Clif LeBlanc

Surveillance video screenshot: Dylann Roof, wearing what his friends said was his favorite shirt, reaches for door knob to enter Charleston's Emanuel AME church June 17, 2015.
Surveillance video screenshot: Dylann Roof, wearing what his friends said was his favorite shirt, reaches for door knob to enter Charleston's Emanuel AME church June 17, 2015. AP

“A haze of gunpowder” is what Charleston police saw and smelled when they entered Emanuel AME Church and discovered perhaps the worst mass murder in the annals of South Carolina crime, newly released police records show.

“SO MANY PEOPLE DEAD I THINK,” an entry in a police log states about the shooting the night of June 17 that would take the lives of nine parishioners. “MAN SHOT PASTOR,” another entry reads. “The number of shots fired is SO MANY.”

Reams of heavily blacked-out documents also reveal that a young man – likely Tywanza Sanders, a 26-year-old recent graduate of Columbia’s Allen University and the youngest of the victims – was alive when a Charleston policeman found him. But he died as the officer tended to him.

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Dozens of documents and photographs were released by Charleston police Thursday under the state’s open-records law following extended negotiations with media outlets after a judge partially lifted a gag order.

Police did not release images from the crime scene itself. They also did not release audio or video – such as that from body camera and dash camera recordings. Officials said there is no transcript of the 911 calls.

The records paint a picture of the blood-soaked scene and the hectic investigation that included initial worries that a gunman was still inside the historic African-American church in the heart of Charleston.

A video shows that the suspect, later identified as avowed segregationist Dylann Roof of the Columbia area, was in the church for 50 minutes. A church camera shows Roof leaving at 9:06 p.m.

Before leaving a Bible study room, the suspect made racially inflammatory statements to an unidentified survivor, according to affidavits by lead Charleston detective Richard Burckhardt that were among the documents released.

The records also show the chaos around the church.

The pastor is dead, calls to police said. The next message: eight people are dead.

Mother Emanuel Nine (2)
The nine parishioners killed June 17 at historic “Mother” Emanuel AME Church in Charleston THE STATE FILE PHOTOGRAPHS

When police rushed in, shell casings littered the room, along with Bibles and other religious books atop a round table and on the floor – for a bible study Roof had participated in before police say he opened fire. Authorities would say later the shooter arrived with eight magazines loaded with hollow-point bullets.

About 30 minutes before midnight, someone who claimed to be the shooter called Channel 4 in Mount Pleasant and said he had planted a bomb near the church. That threat delayed police several hours in conducting their crime scene investigation, the records indicate.

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Police found that each of the eight were shot several times. A ninth parishioner would die soon. Three others, including a child, were hurt but would survive.

The documents also show that police are told the suspect – thin, blond and armed – made suicide threats. Hospitals, coroners, pathologists are summoned within minutes. The hospital at the Medical University of South Carolina is put on alert to receive patients. Roper Hospital is put on alert. Calls pour in from people saying they have seen suspicious men. Charleston firefighters reported seeing one toss a T-shirt into a trashcan of a nearby gas station.

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At one point, an officer says he has the suspect – but he wasn’t the right guy.

Police would release a photograph of Roof by mid-morning on June 18, followed by a video screenshot of him at the church. Roof would be arrested in Shelby, N.C., driving his car that had a .45-caliber Glock hidden in the back seat.

Roof faces the death penalty on nine murder charges in what officials have called a racial crime. Federal prosecutors indicted Roof, who is white, under U.S. hate crime laws.

A photograph released Thursday shows the car in which 21-year-old Roof was apprehended in North Carolina the day after the shooting. It has a license plate with Confederate States of America on the front.

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Photographs of Roof waving Confederate flags before the shooting have been widely published. Authorities say he told them his intent was to start a race war.

Instead, the mass shooting led to the removal of the flag from the State House grounds and prompted demonstrations of unity in Charleston and around South Carolina.

Circuit Judge J.C. Nicholson Jr. earlier had blocked release of all documents. He modified the order this month after a hearing and private meeting with attorneys representing several news organizations, including The State and The Associated Press wire service.

A statement signed by a city attorney issued with the documents said while the public and media have an interest in the case, those interests are not served by releasing gory videos and photographs.

But the redactions go beyond Nicholson’s revised guidelines of what must remain confidential as the case unfolds, said attorney Jay Bender, who represented The (Columbia) State and other media outlets in talks with the judge.

“It strikes me as another example of the police trying to keep the public from finding out what the police are doing,” Bender said. “I would anticipate that there is a wholesale disregard of the (open-records) law.”