Charleston suspect's life a troubled road to radicalization

AP News
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Posted: Jun 27, 2015 11:53 AM
Charleston suspect's life a troubled road to radicalization

CHAPIN, S.C. (AP) — The people who know Dylann Storm Roof — the people who watched his progression from a sweet child to a disturbed man — are struggling with guilt. How could they have missed the signs? Could they have done something to prevent the deaths of nine innocents at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church?

How did it all happen?

Roof himself offers no answers. He sits in North Charleston's Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center, charged with the murders, his $1 million bail far beyond reach.

But talk to his friends and family, and a portrait emerges of a troubled and confused 21-year-old, often drunk and occasionally threatening violence as he alternated between partying with black friends and spouting white power slogans to white friends. Court documents and nearly two dozen interviews show Roof's early childhood was troubled and confused as well, as he grew up in an unstable, broken home amid allegations of marital abuse and infidelity.

He apparently fell under the thrall of racist websites. But how and why are questions that for the moment remain unanswered.

As a 4-year-old, "He was so sweet and bright," recalls Patricia Hastings, who was once his step-grandmother.

Seventeen years later, she is among many who are trying to figure out what happened to Dylann Roof.

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There is little dispute that his childhood was difficult.

Franklin Bennett Roof was a muscular 25-year-old carpenter working for a home construction company, when he met 29-year-old Amelia "Amy" Cowles, a recent divorcee, barely 5-feet tall with blonde hair to her ankles. He was the son of a prominent Columbia attorney; she was a bartender at the Silver Fox. They married in 1988 and had a daughter, Amber, four months later.

The marriage was rocky and brief. They separated in 1990, and divorced a year later. A few years later they briefly reconciled, but split again before Dylann was born on April 3, 1994.

Later, Franklin Roof started dating Paige Hastings, a 25-year-old blonde, and a few months later, in 1998, she called her family with a surprise: "She got married in Florida," said her father, William Hastings. They didn't know anything about her new husband, he said.

In an affidavit filed in her 2009 divorce, Paige would say that she became a surrogate mother for the children: "I raised his kids from a very young age, took them to all of their activities."

Patricia Hastings said her daughter loved Dylann and Amber "unconditionally as her own." She said Amy Roof would leave them in Paige's care with little notice, even though Paige had her own new baby, their half-sister Morgan.

She cut Dylann's hair in the bowl cut he still wears; she took Amber to college orientation because "both parents were unavailable," Paige's friend Leslie McArver would write in an affidavit.

As he grew, Dylann began exhibiting signs of obsessive compulsive behavior, Hastings said. He would obsess over germs, and insisted on having his hair cut in that same style, Hastings said.

Still, he played video games, interacted with the family. He attended church and went to Bible camp.

"He seemed like a normal boy," she said.

Things grew stressful at home. Money was a problem so Paige took a part time job. Franklin Roof was often out of town.

Franklin Roof was verbally abusive, Paige's friend Carol Elliott would write in an affidavit.

As part of the divorce, Paige gave this account:

When his business began flourishing in 2005, Franklin Roof made her quit her job. In 2008, the business expanded, and he moved Paige and Morgan to Florida, leaving Dylann behind with his mother and disregarding Paige' wishes to stay close to her parents. Within months, their marriage fell apart as the recession struck his business.

On Sept. 20, 2008, her husband pushed her to the ground and hit her in the head. She took pictures of bruises, but no police report was filed, according to the local sheriff's department.

Paige took her daughter back to Columbia.

Franklin Roof hired a private investigator in 2009 to shadow her, revealing she was having an affair, according to the court documents.

The divorce was granted 2009. Hastings recalls that her daughter told her she felt guilty leaving Dylann.

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"In school, he flew under the radar," said Joseph Meek Jr., a close friend in middle school. "Nobody picked on him. But he was just another name in class. He was there, but he wasn't there."

Meek took Roof under his wing, introducing him to his friends. His mother would make him sandwiches and he'd sleep over.

"He was like part of the family," said Meek's mother, Kimberly Konzny.

But then Meek's mother got divorced and the family moved to a mobile home park in a different neighborhood. Their friendship withered.

Roof failed the ninth grade, and in the fall of 2009 began repeating his freshman year at White Knoll High School in Lexington, S.C. In the middle of the school year, he transferred to another school in Columbia, school officials said. He failed the ninth grade again and dropped out for good in 2010, according to Karen York, spokeswoman for Richland school district.

People around him worried about his lack of direction. He was spending too much time in his room in front of the computer. They pushed him to get a job. He worked odd jobs — including one as a landscaper — but he was unhappy, his friends said.

Over the past year, Roof became increasingly unhinged.

In February, worried employees at a Columbia shopping mall called the police when Roof, dressed in black, asked them suspicious questions about when stores closed and when they left for the night, according to court records. He was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of possessing the drug Suboxone, a trendy narcotic also used to wean people from opiate addiction.

In March, a police officer searched his car when he was found loitering at a park and found six empty 40-round magazines for an AR-15 assault rifle in his trunk, according to a police report. Roof told the officer he was saving up to buy an AR-15, the report said.

In April, he was arrested again on a charge of trespassing at the mall, where he'd been banned.

He had become a recluse. He never responded to an invitation to Amber's wedding — which had been planned for last weekend but was postponed after the massacre. He also appears to have begun a journey into the world of Internet hate sites, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks those sites.

A man adrift, Roof was the perfect candidate for the websites, said Keegan Hanks, of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"If you don't have much of a social life in the real world, this is a way for you to interact with other individuals and be affirmed and encouraged," Hanks said.

Roof appeared to be "AryanBlood1488," who began posting on the white supremacist site the Daily Stormer in August, Hanks said. In comments over several months, "AryanBlood1488" described how he typed "black on white crime" into a Google search, ending up at the Council of Conservative Citizens site and then descended into radicalism from there.

Kyle Rogers, a member of the Council of Conservative Citizens who lives in Summerville, South Carolina, denied Roof had any direct dealings with the group. A federal law enforcement source close to the investigation said the FBI is investigating Roof's possible links to the Daily Stormer. The source spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to discuss the investigation publicly.

Roof also posted a photo on Facebook of himself wearing a jacket with the flags of the defunct white-supremacist regimes in South Africa and Rhodesia.

On Feb. 9, according to Internet records, someone using Roof's name, address and phone number registered a new website. On it, were photos of Roof at a Confederate cemetery, brandishing a gun, burning the American flag and spitting on it. In one, he squats on a beach next to "1488" — a neo-Nazi code — carved into the sand. In another, with an April 27 time stamp, he sits on a black wrought iron chair surrounded by flowers and plants, a Confederate flag in one hand and a pistol in the other. He glares at the camera over his sunglasses.

The site also contained a lengthy manifesto explaining an indoctrination into radical racism. Using plagiarism software, the Southern Poverty Law Center found "AryanBlood1488" had posted similar writings on the Daily Stormer site.

"The body of evidence was substantial enough to give us the confidence to say it was him," Hanks said.

On his 21st birthday in April, Roof bought himself a present: a .45-caliber Glock semi-automatic handgun with a high-point laser for accuracy.

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Paige has remarried; her last name is now Mann. She refused to talk to the AP about her son (as did Franklin and Amy Roof, who both chased AP from their properties).

Mann had barely seen her former stepson since her nasty divorce from his father in 2009. But last month, when she went to pick up her daughter at her ex-husband's house, he was there.

According to Patricia Hastings, recounting recent conversations with her daughter, Roof was quieter than he used to be; he looked distant, lost. He was no longer the sweet blond kid she helped raise for nearly a decade. As she was getting ready to leave, Roof, not one for affection, hugged her tight.

"It was like he was saying goodbye," Hastings said.

The next time Mann saw him, it was on television as the man accused of the church killings.

Joseph Meek also had lost contact with Roof. Then this spring, after five years out of touch, Roof contacted Meek on Facebook and said he was coming over.

"I was thrilled," Meek said.

He recalled that when Roof arrived, he had a vacant, troubled stare. He brushed off Meek's concerns; Meek figured Roof would open up in time.

Roof stayed at Meek's mobile home off and on for more than a month. One moment he'd be laughing and talking to Meek and his two brothers about NASCAR and movies. Then he'd leave mid-sentence and find a spot to be alone. Maybe in his car, where he'd pop an opera tape into the radio. Or behind a mobile home, bottle of vodka in hand, and stare into space. Roof drank heavily, and often. Sometimes, he'd abruptly say: "I'm headed to Charleston," and drive off.

Meek said Roof never used to talk about race. But one drunken night, he talked about the killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida and the riots in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray from injuries suffered in police custody, Meek said.

Roof insisted "blacks were taking over the world" and "someone needed to do something about it for the white race." Meek said he told him this was "crazy talk" and Roof would settle down.

Yet Roof also bonded with Meek's black neighbor Christon Scriven over their love of NASCAR and fishing. Scriven said Roof confided that he was unhappy, bouncing between the homes of his divorced parents.

One night, Roof drunkenly blurted out a plan to carrying out a mass shooting at the College of Charleston. They knew he had a gun — he bragged that he knew how to use it — so Scriven and Meek took it out of his glove compartment and hid it in Meek's trailer, they said. They later gave it back because they were on probation and feared having it would be a violation, Meek said.

The day of the shooting, Meek and his brothers decided to go to a lake. Roof said he'd drop them on his way to the movies.

Hours later, police say, he took his gun and walked into the Bible study at Emanuel AME.

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Patricia Hastings wonders if Roof's rare embrace of her daughter, his stepmother, had been a message, a goodbye perhaps. "This is such a hard pill to swallow. Paige and I are trying to do something to heal our hearts ... We spent days crying for the victims," she said, her voice quivering.

Meek said he too is replaying, reinterpreting, his memories of Roof over the last months.

"We were a big part of his life, and when I look back at everything, I think he had it all planned and he just wanted to hang out with us one last time," Meek said. "I just wish he would have talked to me. I wish he would have told me what was bothering him. I would have done something. This will stay with me, with all of us."

"It still doesn't seem real."

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Associated Press writer Meg Kinnard contributed to this report