(CNN) — Dylann Roof, accused of killing nine people at a prayer meeting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was taken custody in North Carolina, authorities said Thursday.
Roof was armed with a gun when he was arrested in Shelby, North Carolina — about a 3½-hour drive north-northwest of the shooting at the historic African-American church, according to a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation. It’s not clear if it’s the same firearm he allegedly used in Wednesday night’s shooting.
The shooting victims “were killed because they were black,” Charleston police spokesman Charles Francis told CNN’s Nick Valencia on Thursday. Francis made those remarks after being asked what is leading authorities to investigate the shooting as a hate crime.
Police had said earlier that Roof, 21, of Lexington, South Carolina, may have been driving a black Hyundai with vehicle tag LGF330. Roof was arrested after a traffic stop prompted by a tip from a citizen, police said.
In an image from his Facebook page, Roof is wearing a jacket with what appear to be the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and nearby Rhodesia, a former British colony that a white minority ruled until it became independent in 1980 and changed its name to Zimbabwe.
Roof is white and slightly built. Police say he walked into the Charleston church Wednesday night and fatally shot nine people.
Police released a flier Thursday morning with details of the suspect as they appealed for help to identify and track him down as quickly as possible.
Charleston Police Chief Gregory Mullen told a news conference that officers “have obtained surveillance videos of the suspect in this case and a suspect vehicle.”
Mullen said the suspect was a “younger white male between 21 and 25 years of age, 5-foot-9 in height” and “has a very distinctive sweatshirt that has markings.”
Mullen emphasized the suspect is “a very dangerous individual” and said “he should not be approached by anyone.”
Woman spared by shooter to give account?
A female survivor told family members that the gunman told her he was letting her live to tell everyone else what happened, Dot Scott, president of the local branch of the NAACP, told CNN.
Scott said she had not spoken to the survivor directly but had heard this account repeated at least a dozen times as she met with relatives of the victims Wednesday night. Scott added that she didn’t know if the survivor had ended up at the hospital or being questioned by police.
Because of the church’s historic significance, it is not unusual for visitors, whether white or black, to visit it, Scott said. She said she’d had no indication that any children were among the victims.
Mullen told the news conference the suspect had been in the church attending a meeting that was going on — and “stayed there almost an hour with the group before the actual event.”
But he declined to comment on whether the suspect had let one woman escape.
‘Distinctive’ license plate
The suspect was seen leaving the church in a black four-door sedan, the flier says. “The vehicle you will see has a very distinctive front license plate,” Mullen added, but did not give further details on what made it stand out.
He appealed for the media to help in circulating the suspect’s image and for the public to be vigilant. The clean-shaven man pictured wears a gray sweatshirt over a white T-shirt, blue jeans and Timberland boots.
Police are “going through all kinds of video” and trying to identify any private or public video that may show anything useful for the investigation, Mullen said.
“No one in this community will ever forget this night and as a result of this and because of the pain and the hurt this individual has caused this entire community, the law enforcement agents are committed and we will catch this individual,” he said.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley echoed that sentiment, saying everything must be done to find a culprit he described as “somebody filled with hate and with a deranged mind.”
The man is a “no-good, horrible person” who must be taken into custody, he said. “Of course we will make sure he pays the price for this horrible act.”
Six of those killed in Wednesday night’s attack at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church were female and three male. The victims included the church’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney.
A statement from the Georgia branch of the NAACP said, “There is no greater coward than a criminal who enters a house of God and slaughters innocent people engaged in the study of scripture.”