For more than six months, Dylann Roof traveled to historic sites of racial strife in South Carolina’s history, ending up again and again at the church where he later gunned down nine black worshipers during their weekly Bible Study.
Data culled from Roof’s GPS navigation device showed the self-avowed white supremacist made seven trips to Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church in the months leading up to the June 2015 massacre. He often lingered for hours in the area before making the 90-minute trip back to his home outside Columbia, FBI Special Agent Joseph Hamski testified Tuesday in Roof’s federal hate crimes trial.
Roof’s journeys began about six months after he downloaded a history book about the Ku Klux Klan, Hamski said. Then, just a few days before Christmas in 2014, Roof jumped into his black Hyundai and traveled to the Holy City, stopping in front of Emanuel twice that day along with visiting Mount Pleasant’s Boone Hall Plantation, Hamski said. During one stop at the church that day, he appeared to pull into Emanuel’s side parking lot, where he would park the night of the shooting.
In the months that followed that pre-Christmas journey, Roof returned to Charleston over and over, always alone, visiting Sullivan’s Island and former slave plantations in the area, often wearing all black. He documented his sojourns with photos he later posted on his website, along with a racist manifesto demeaning African Americans and others. But each trip brought him back around to Emanuel, stopping in the area for up to five hours at a time, Hamski said.
He peppered some visits to Charleston with mundane stops at places including Starbucks, Chic-fil-A and gas stations along his path. But during each trip, he visited a site with historic ties to the Confederacy and the Civil War – and drove past Emanuel AME Church.
The GPS data also showed that on the afternoon of the shooting, Roof left his home outside of Columbia and headed directly for Charleston, arriving at 7:48 p.m. He parked at Emanuel at 8:15 p.m. and walked inside a minute later. After he attended the Bible study, Roof left, gun in his right hand, at 9:06 p.m. He cruised out of the church’s back parking lot onto Henrietta Street, then straight up Meeting Street to leave a city exploding into chaos behind him as he drove up Interstate 26.
About 30 miles outside of Charleston, he pulled off the interstate and began threading a circuitous path along two-lane country roads that skirted the thoroughfare until he made it to Charlotte about five hours after the shooting. His GPS unit turned off then, and it appears he rested for three hours before resuming his escape through downtown Charlotte and onto the small border town of Shelby, N.C. There, a florist on her way to work spotted him and called police who arrested Roof without incident.
Inside his car, investigators found a list of black churches, including Emanuel, along with his gun and a leather-bound journal with writings that detailed racist rantings that degraded blacks and others, along with two notes to his parents telling them he loved them.
Hamski’s testimony came during the fifth day of Roof’s death penalty trial, and the agent helped prosecutors tie together a large pile of evidence linking the 22-year-old to the killings at Emanuel. The jury also saw dozens of images of Roof acting out the racist ideology said to have fueled the killings.
Toward the end of the day, they watched a chilling video of Roof taking target practice in the yard of his Eastover home with the gun he reportedly used to commit the Emanuel killings. Sporting his signature bowl haircut, he paraded about the yard in baggy plaid pants, a black muscle T-shirt and combat boots as he blasted a cinderblock target stand.
In the courtroom, Roof turned away as prosecutors played one video in which he aimed the .45-caliber Glock at the camera and its laser sight glowed in the camera lens. Roof tossed a phone book in the air and shot it down, firing into it again and again after it fell to the ground. Two survivors of the mass shooting watched the videos on a large TV screen in the courtroom, staring stone-faced as he fired shot after shot, pausing occasionally to wipe his brow with his forearm.