Dylann Roof was born in Columbia, South Carolina, to Franklin Bennett (called Bennett) Roof, a carpenter, and Amelia "Amy" Cowles, a bartender. Both were divorced but temporarily reconciled at the time of his birth. When Roof was five, his father married Paige Mann (nee Hastings) in November 1999, but they divorced after ten years of marriage. Bennett Roof was allegedly verbally and physically abusive towards Mann. The family mostly lived in South Carolina, though from about 2005 to 2008, they temporarily moved to the Florida Keys. There is no information about Roof attending local schools there.
According to a 2009 affidavit filed for Mann's divorce, Roof exhibited signs of obsessive–compulsive disorder as he grew up, obsessing over germs and insisting on having his hair cut in a certain style. When he was in middle school, he exhibited an interest in smoking marijuana, having once been caught spending money on it.
In nine years, Roof attended at least seven schools in two South Carolina counties, including White Knoll High School in Lexington, in which he repeated the ninth grade, finishing it in another school. He apparently stopped attending classes in 2010 and, according to his family, dropped out of school and spent his time alternating between playing video games and taking drugs, such as Suboxone. He was on the rolls of a local Lutheran congregation.
Prior to the attack, Roof was living alternately in Bennett's and Cowles' homes in downtown Columbia and Hopkins, respectively, but was mostly raised by his stepmother Mann. In the past several weeks preceding the attack, Roof had also been occasionally living in the home of an old friend from middle school and the latter's mother. He allegedly spent his time using drugs and getting drunk. He had been working as a landscaper at the behest of his father, but quit the job prior to the shooting.
His maternal uncle, Carson Cowles, said that he expressed concern about the social withdrawal of his then-nineteen-year-old nephew, because "he still didn't have a job, a driver's license or anything like that and he just stayed in his room a lot of the time." Cowles said he tried to mentor Roof, but was rejected and they drifted apart. According to Mann, Roof cut off all contact with her after her divorce from his father. When his sister planned to be married, he did not respond to her invitation to the event.
A former high school classmate said that despite Roof's racist comments, some of his friends in school were black.
Roof had a prior police record consisting of two arrests, both made in the months preceding the attack. On March 2, 2015, he was questioned about a February 28 incident at the Columbiana Centre in Columbia, in which he entered the mall wearing all-black clothing and asked employees unsettling questions. During the questioning, authorities found a bottle of what was later admitted to be Suboxone, a narcotic used either for treating opiate addictions or as a recreational drug; Roof was arrested for a misdemeanor charge of drug possession. He was subsequently banned from the Columbiana Centre for a year. After he was arrested again on April 26 for trespassing on the mall grounds, the ban was extended for three additional years.
According to James Comey, Roof's March arrest was written as a felony, which would have required an inquiry into the charge during a background check examination. However, it was legally a misdemeanor charge and was incorrectly written as a felony at first due to a data entry error made by a jail clerk. Despite this, Roof would not have been able to legally purchase firearms under a law that barred "unlawful user[s] of or addicted to any controlled substance" from owning firearms.
On March 13, 2015, Roof was investigated for loitering in his parked car near a park in downtown Columbia. He had been recognized by an off-duty police officer who investigated his March 2 questioning; the officer then called a colleague to investigate. A police officer conducted a search of his vehicle and found a firearm grip for an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and six unloaded magazines, all capable of holding 40 rounds. When asked about it, Roof informed the officer that he wanted to purchase an AR-15, but did not have enough money to do so. He was not charged, as it was not illegal in South Carolina to possess a firearm grip.
On the evening of June 17, 2015, a mass shooting took place at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, United States. During a routine Bible study at the church, a white man about 21 years old, later identified as Roof, opened fire with a handgun, killing nine people. Roof was unemployed and living in largely African-American Eastover at the time of the attack.
According to a childhood friend, Roof went on a rant about the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the 2015 Baltimore protests that were sparked by the death of Freddie Gray while Gray was in police custody. He also often claimed that "blacks were taking over the world". Roof reportedly told friends and neighbors of his plans to kill people, including a plot to attack the College of Charleston, but his claims were not taken seriously.
One image from his Facebook page showed him wearing a jacket decorated with two obsolete flags used as emblems among American white supremacist movements, those of Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe) and apartheid-era South Africa. Another online photo showed Roof sitting on the hood of his car with an ornamental license plate with a Confederate flag on it. According to his roommate, Roof expressed his support of racial segregation in the United States and had intended to start a civil war.
One of the friends who briefly hid Roof's gun away from him said, "I don't think the church was his primary target because he told us he was going for the school. But I think he couldn't get into the school because of the security ... so I think he just settled for the church." An African-American friend of his said that he never witnessed Roof expressing any racial prejudice, but also said that a week before the shooting, Roof had confided in him that he would commit a shooting at the college.
On June 20, a website that had been registered to a "Dylann Roof" on February 9, 2015, lastrhodesian.com was discovered. Though the identity of the domain's owner was intentionally masked the day after it was registered, law enforcement officials confirmed Roof as the owner. The site included a cache of photos of Roof posing with a handgun and a Confederate Battle Flag, as well as with the widely-recognized Nazi code numbers 88 (an abbreviation for the salute "Heil Hitler!") and 1488, written in sand. Roof was also seen spitting on and burning an American flag. While some photographs seemed to show Roof at home in his room, others were taken on an apparent tour of slavery-related North and South Carolina historical sites, including Sullivan's Island, the largest slave disembarkation port in North America, four former plantations, two cemeteries (one for white Confederate soldiers, the other for slaves), and the Museum and Library of Confederate History in Greenville. Roof is believed to have taken self-portraits using a timer, and his visits were not remembered by staff members working at the sites.
The website also contained an unsigned, 2,444-word manifesto apparently authored by Roof, in which he outlined his opinions, all methodically broken into the following sections: "Blacks", "Jews", "Hispanics", "East Asians", "Patriotism", and "An Explanation":
I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to Whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.
The manifesto states that its author was "truly awakened" by coverage of the shooting of Trayvon Martin:
"I read the Wikipedia article and right away I was unable to understand what the big deal was. It was obvious that Zimmerman was in the right. But more importantly this prompted me to type in the words 'black on White crime' into Google, and I have never been the same since that day. The first website I came to was the Council of Conservative Citizens. There were pages upon pages of these brutal black on White murders. I was in disbelief. At this moment I realized that something was very wrong. How could the news be blowing up the Trayvon Martin case while hundreds of these black on White murders got ignored?"
The manifesto also mentioned as another source of influence the Northwest Front, a Seattle-based white supremacist organization infamous for its participation in the 1979 Greensboro massacre.
According to web server logs, Roof's website was last modified at 4:44 p.m. on June 17, when Roof noted, "[A]t the time of writing I am in a great hurry."
Roof personally purchased the gun used in the shooting from a retail gun store in Charleston, using money given to him on his birthday. The Washington Post reported on July 10, 2015, that FBI Director James Comey said that Roof "was able to purchase the gun used in the attack only because of lapses in the FBI's background-check system".
One week prior to the shooting, two of his friends tried to hide the gun after Roof claimed he was going to kill people. However, they returned it to him after the girlfriend of one of the friends, whose trailer they hid the gun in, pointed out he was on probation and needed to have the gun out of his possession.
FBI analysis of Roof's seized cellphone and computer found that he was in online communication with other white supremacists, according to unnamed officials. Although Roof's contacts did not appear to have encouraged the massacre, the investigation was said to have widened to also include other persons of interest.
Although the Council of Conservative Citizens took down its website on June 20 in the immediate wake of negative publicity, its president, Earl Holt, stated that the organization was "hardly responsible" for Roof's actions. However, the organization also issued a statement saying that Roof had some "legitimate grievances" against black people and that the group's website "accurately and honestly report[s] black-on-white violent crime". Harold Covington, the founder of the Northwest Front, also condemned Roof's actions, but called the attack "a preview of coming attractions".
Through analysis of his manifesto, the Southern Poverty Law Center alleged that Roof was a reader and commenter on The Daily Stormer, a white nationalist news website. Its editor Andrew Anglin "repudiated Roof's crime and publicly disavowed violence, while endorsing many of Roof's views." He claimed that while he would have sympathy with a white man shooting criminals, killing innocents including elderly women was "a completely insane act".
The attack was treated as a hate crime by police, and officials from the FBI were called in to assist in the investigation and manhunt.
At 10:44 a.m., on the morning after the attack, Roof was captured in a traffic stop in Shelby, North Carolina, approximately 245 miles (394 km) from the shooting scene. A .45-caliber pistol was found in the car during the arrest, though it was not immediately clear if it was the same one used in the attack. Police received a tip-off from a driver, Debbie Dills, from Gastonia, North Carolina. She recognized Roof driving his car, a black Hyundai Elantra with South Carolina license plates and a three-flag "Confederate States of America" bumper decoration, on U.S. Route 74, recalling security camera images taken at the church and distributed to the media. She later recalled, "I got closer and saw that haircut. I was nervous. I had the worst feeling. Is that him or not him?" She called her employer, who contacted local police, and then tailed the suspect's car for 35 miles (56 km) until she was certain authorities were moving in for an arrest.
His older half-sister also reported him to the police after seeing his photo on the news.
Roof was arrested and was interrogated by the FBI. He stated that he had been traveling to Nashville, Tennessee, when he was arrested in Shelby. Police in Shelby deferred his questioning to the FBI. An unidentified source said interrogations with Roof after his arrest determined he had been planning the attack for around six months, researched Emanuel AME Church, and targeted it because of its role in African-American history.
Roof waived his extradition rights and was flown to Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center in North Charleston on the evening of June 18. At the jail, his cell-block neighbor was Michael Slager, the former North Charleston officer charged with first-degree murder in the wake of his shooting of Walter Scott. Roof confessed to committing the Charleston attack with the intention of starting a race war, and reportedly told investigators he almost did not go through with his mission because members of the church study group had been so nice to him.
On June 19, Roof was charged with nine counts of murder and one count of possession of a firearm during the commission of a violent crime. He first appeared in Charleston County court by video conference at a bond hearing later that day. At the hearing, shooting survivors and relatives of five of the victims spoke to Roof directly, saying that they were "praying for his soul" and forgave him. Governor Nikki Haley has called for prosecutors to seek the death penalty for Roof.
The judge, Charleston County chief magistrate James "Skip" Gosnell, Jr., caused controversy at the bond hearing with his statement that, alongside the dead victims and their families, "there are victims on this young man's side of the family […] Nobody would have ever thrown them into the whirlwind of events that they are being thrown into." Gosnell then set a $1 million bond for the weapons possession charge and no bail on the nine counts of murder.
On July 7, Roof was indicted on three new charges of attempted murder, one for each person who survived the shooting. A temporary gag order was issued by a judge on July 14 following the appearance of a letter purportedly written by Roof on an online auction site. Seven groups, including news media outlets, families of the slain victims, and church officials, called for easing some restrictions placed by the gag order, particularly 9-1-1 calls. Portions of the gag order were lifted on October 14, allowing for the release of 9-1-1 call transcripts and other documents, but the order remained in place for graphic crime scene photos and videos, as well as audio for the 9-1-1 calls.
On July 16, Roof's trial in state court was scheduled by Circuit Court Judge J.C. Nicholson to start on July 11, 2016. On July 20, Roof was ordered to provide handwriting samples to investigators. The order explained that following his arrest in Shelby, notes and lists were found written on his hand and at other locations; that the handwriting samples were needed to determine if the handwriting matched.
Roof reappeared in state court on October 23, 2015, at 2:00 p.m. and is scheduled to reappear on February 5, 2016, at 9:00 a.m., before Nicholson.
On July 22, it was announced that Roof will face a total of 33 federal hate crime charges, among others, including 18 charges that carry the federal death penalty.
Roof reappeared in court on July 31, after a hearing scheduled for July 27 was delayed. He pleaded not guilty to the federal charges against him at the behest of his lawyer David Bruck. Roof wanted to plead guilty, but Bruck stated he was not willing to advise a guilty plea until the government indicated whether it wanted to seek the death penalty. Roof's attorneys filed motions in federal court seeking access to his statements to police, physical evidence, and summaries of people expected to testify.
On September 3, Ninth Circuit solicitor (district attorney) Scarlett Wilson said that she intended to seek the death penalty for Roof. The decision was made since more than two people were killed in the shooting and others' lives were put at risk. On September 16, Roof said through his attorney that he was willing to plead guilty to the state charges in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without parole. On October 1, the trial was pushed back to at least January 2016 to give prosecutors and Roof's attorneys more time to prepare. On December 1, the trial was postponed again to an unknown date.