WASHINGTON: The young white man accused of shooting nine people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina "almost didn't go through with it" because he had been treated so kindly by the mostly black congregation, police sources said on Friday.
Dylann Roof, 21, sat for nearly an hour in a Bible-study group at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, before opening fire and killing three men and six women, including the church's pastor and an 87-year-old woman parishioner.
Roof spoke of his second thoughts during interviews with police before he was charged with nine counts of murder yesterday. He "almost didn't go through with it because everyone was so nice to him," the sources told NBC, but ultimately he decided to "go through with his mission".
That "mission" and the picture of social dislocation and racial animus that apparently drove Roof to mass-murder became clearer yesterday as friends and family came forward to describe a deeply troubled young man harbouring white supremacist views.
"He said blacks were taking over the world. Someone needed to do something about it for the white race," said Joseph Meek, a former middle-school friend who had gone on a night of heavy drinking with Roof a few weeks ago.
"He said he wanted segregation between whites and blacks. I said, 'That's not the way it should be.' But he kept talking about it," said Mr Meek, adding he had taken away Roof's.45 calibre Glock pistol that night, but returned the weapon to his friend when he had sobered up the next morning. Roof's older sister, Amber, was among the first to call police after recognising her brother in surveillance footage. He was arrested in Shelby, four hours' drive from Charleston, on Thursday morning following a tip-off from a local florist who recognised his black saloon car.
Miss Roof was scheduled to be married on Sunday and left her job as preschool teacher ahead of the wedding but the ceremony appears to have been cancelled.
Chained hand and foot and dressed in a black-and-white striped jumpsuit, Roof was flown back to Charleston where he appeared in court via video link last night for a brief, but dramatic bail hearing.
One after the other, the sobbing families of the nine victims offered their forgiveness to Roof, whilst expressing their own pain and anger at the loss his actions had inflicted on them.
"You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Every fibre in my body hurts and I'll never be the same," said Alecia Sanders, describing her lost 26-year-old son Tywanza, as her "hero". She added: "May God have mercy on you."
Roof stared back into the camera impassively, flanked by two heavily armed police officers. He spoke only to confirm his age and address, and was remanded in custody until his next hearing on Oct 23.
As public anger deepened over the killings, Nikki Haley, South Carolina's state governor, said she would seek the death penalty for Roof, after he carried out one of the most heinous hate-crimes since the Civil Rights era. "We will absolutely want him to have the death penalty," she said, "This is the worst hate that I've seen and the country has seen in a long time."
The transformation of Roof, from quiet loner with a pudding-basin haircut, to a killer apparently capable of premeditated mass-murder continued to perplex many of his friends and associates.
"I never thought he'd do something like this," said Antonio Metze, 19, a former high-school friend who is black. "He had black friends." Another high school friend, John Mullins, recalled Roof making "racist slurs", but said he "never took them seriously", again citing Roof's black friends.
Roof had had two minor run-ins with the police this year, including a drugs offence and an arrest for trespassing, but the family's lawyer, who had worked to defend him on the drugs charges, also said there were no obvious signs that he could do something so dreadful.
Roof's parents, Ben and Amy, were divorced during his childhood, leaving him the subject of a custody dispute that required legal arbitration.
At Roof's father home in Eastover, a two-hour drive north of the scene of the massacre, the door remained closed to visitors.
The US justice department said on Friday night it would investigate the shootings as a possible "act of domestic terrorism".
Barack Obama believes the Confederate flag currently flown on the grounds of South Carolina state Capitol, belongs in a museum, the White House said.