In the spring of 2015, Dylann Roof told friends he wanted to see something happen in South Carolina that would make global headlines, like the September 11 terrorist attacks did for New York. Just weeks later, he walked into Charleston's Emanuel AME Church and gunned down nine black worshippers at a Wednesday evening Bible study.
The tragedy succeeded in drawing the world's attention to Charleston, but newly unsealed court documents suggest Roof might have had even darker plans for the night of June 17, 2015.
After committing the massacre at Emanuel, Roof drove straight toward a second church with black parishioners while still armed with a .45-caliber Glock pistol and hollow-point rounds, according to a September motion from federal prosecutors. Branch AME Church in Jedburg, located about 29 miles from Charleston, had also advertised a weekly Bible study that night.
The Bible study at Branch AME, however, had been called off, according to the Rev. Rufus Berry, the church's pastor of seven years. Berry said he didn't know the 22-year-old white supremacist had passed by his 147-year-old church until media reports about Roof's travels surfaced Wednesday.
"Nobody said anything about it to me at the time," Berry said. "Just hearing about this is kind of mind-boggling."
Roof was sentenced to death in January for the mass shooting at Emanuel. He is now being held at the Charleston County jail while he awaits a state trial on murder charges stemming from the attack.
Investigators traced Roof's route after the killings by analyzing a GPS device found in his car. The GPS showed that Roof shut off the device for about two minutes as he approached Branch AME, a sign that he had stopped his car near the church at 482 Jedburg Road, prosecutors said.
The GPS data also showed that Roof had driven by Branch AME about four months before the shooting, on Feb. 27, 2015, prosecutors said. At the time, the then-21-year-old loner was living some 74 miles away in Eastover — more than hour's drive from the church. The trip also took place around the time Roof purchased a web domain that would serve as the host site for a racist manifesto he posted just before his killing spree at Emanuel.
The similarities between Emanuel and Branch AME churches, coupled with the fact that Roof was still armed, "supports the inference that Defendant intended to continue his racially-motivated violence at Branch AME Church that night and, more specifically, that his intended targets were African-American congregants at a church," prosecutors stated in their motion.
In a separate motion, defense attorneys offered much a less nefarious explanation: Roof was simply trying to get away after the mass shooting at Emanuel and had exited Interstate 26 in Jedburg so he could take back roads in hope of avoiding law enforcement. That he traveled by Branch AME was just a coincidence as he followed a route to Shelby, N.C., where he was eventually arrested the next day, they argued.
"It appears that the GPS device was briefly turned off, and then back on, in the general vicinity of the church, but there is no indication that the defendant stopped or even slowed down as he passed by," the defense motion stated. "Given the large number of AME churches in South Carolina, he also drove nearby many other AME churches between Charleston and Shelby, but there is no evidence that he approached any of them."
The jury in Roof's recent death penalty trial heard about lists of predominantly black churches found in his car after his arrest, but jurors weren't told about his visits to Branch AME. The church was not among those listed on pieces of paper found in his vehicle.
Other newly unsealed documents show defense attorneys sought to block prosecutors from introducing evidence about those lists, as well as GPS data about his visits to Branch AME and two photographs taken of the church. Prosecutors chose not to push for the jury to hear about Branch AME, rendering that point moot.
U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel, however, allowed the lists of churches to come in, disagreeing with the defense's contention that the documents would be unfairly prejudicial to Roof's case.
"Lists of many African-American churches found in the car used to attack the first-listed church suggest the attack was deliberate and premeditated," Gergel stated in an Oct. 19 ruling. "The lists suggest Defendant wanted to target African-American communities, that he researched lists of such communities as possible targets, and that the place he attacked was at the top of his list."
Roof fired some 77 rounds inside Emanuel on the night of the attack in what prosecutors have said was an attempt to spark a race war. He later told FBI agents that he saved an additional magazine of bullets to kill himself if encountered police when he left the church. None were waiting, however, so he jumped in his car and drove off, heading in the direction of Branch AME.
The hour-long Bible study at Branch AME would likely have been over long before Roof passed by that night, even if it hadn't been canceled, the church's pastor said. But he and lifelong church member Jannette Alston were still unsettled by the news that Roof had come so close to their small church, which has about 70 members.
"It blew it my mind when I heard about it today that he went to our church," Alston said.
Source: The Post and Courier, Glenn Smith, February 22, 2017
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