June 18, 2015
Police are searching for a gunman who opened fire Wednesday night at a historic African American church in downtown Charleston, S.C. Charleston officials said nine people were killed and others were injured.
“I do believe this is a hate crime,” Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said at a late night news conference, without explaining the basis for his conclusion.
Police said the victims had gathered Wednesday night in the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston for a prayer service when the shooting occurred. Police are now searching for the gunman, described as a clean-shaven white male in his early 20s, who has sandy blond hair and a small build. Police said he was wearing a gray sweatshirt, blue jeans and Timberland boots. He is believe to be the only shooter.
“This is the most unspeakable and heartbreaking tragedy in historic Emanuel AME church, the mother church of the AME churches,” Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley (D) said. “People in prayer Wednesday evening, a ritual coming together, praying and worshiping God. To have an awful person come in and shoot them is inexplicable. Obviously the most intolerable and unbelievable act possible.”
“The only reason someone could walk into a church and shoot people praying is out of hate,” he added. “The only reason. It is the most dastardly act that one could possibly imagine.”
Police said the shooting occurred about 9 p.m. at the church, which is located between Henrietta and Calhoun streets near Marion Square in downtown Charleston. Charleston’s NAACP president Dot Scott told the Post and Courierthat a female survivor told family members the shooter sat down in the church for a while before he started shooting.
When officers arrived, they determined that eight people had been killed inside the church, Mullen told reporters. Two others were taken to a nearby hospital, where the ninth died, he said.
The victims have not been identified. Police said there were survivors but did not say how many there were or what condition they were in.
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley (R) said in a statement late Wednesday night that she is praying for the victims and their families.
“While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another,” she said. “Please join us in lifting up the victims and their families with our love and prayers.”
After the shooting, helicopters swarmed overhead and heavily armed police wearing bullet-proof vests moved out across the city to search for the suspect.
“This was a very chaotic scene when we arrived,” Mullen said. “We were tracking this individual with canines. We were making sure that he was not in the area to commit other crimes. As all this was going on, we received information that there might be a secondary explosive device in the scene.”
Crisis chaplains rushed to the scene as people started creating prayers circles to pray for the victims and their families.
“I’m lost, I’m lost,” Jon Quil Lance told the Post and Courier. He had been told his grandmother was shot in the church. “Granny was the heart of the family.”
“I don’t even know if she’s alive now,” he told the newspaper. “I don’t even know if my grandmother is alive.”
Mullen said authorities are investigating the incident as a hate crime. Local law enforcement has joined forces with the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to track down leads. Mullen said police will soon announce a reward for information leading to the suspect’s capture.
“We will continue to do that until we find this individual who has carried out this crime tonight and bring him to justice,” he said.
Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church has been a landmark in Charleston for more than 150 years. It is one of the largest and oldest black congregations in the region, according to its Web site. The pastor, Clementa Pinckney, who is also a state senator, was in the church at the time of the shooting, a Statehouse Democratic caucus member told the Post and Courier.
His condition is not yet known.
“This is a tragedy that no community should have to experience,” Mullen said. “It is senseless. It is unfathomable that somebody in today’s society would walk into a church when people are having a prayer meeting and take their lives.”
Source: Washington Post