Crime & Courts

Charleston shooting suspect captured in Shelby

FBI comments on Charleston shooting suspect arrest

FBI special agent talks about arrest of Charleston shooting suspect Dylann Roof's arrest in Shelby.
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FBI special agent talks about arrest of Charleston shooting suspect Dylann Roof's arrest in Shelby.

Debbie Dills was running late for work Thursday. But her timing – and haunting TV images from Charleston, S.C. – led to the capture of the suspect in the church massacre there.

Like the people killed in Charleston, Dills, 51, who works at a Kings Mountain flower shop, had also been at church Wednesday night. She came home to Fox News coverage of the shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church.

“All the time I was praying for those people,” said Dills, who is also minister of music at West Cramerton Baptist Church. “I was just really burdened for them.”

Other television images also stuck in Dills’ head: The black sedan the suspect was said to be driving and the bowl haircut he sported.

She headed west on U.S. 74 Thursday morning from her home in Gastonia. When she was nearly to the Kings Mountain exit, at about 10:15 a.m., Dills noticed a black sedan with South Carolina plates also headed west but in the left lane.

“I looked at the car and thought, ‘I’ve seen that car before,’” Dills said. “I don’t know why, because I was doing what I normally do, singing and praising the Lord.”

She looked again: “I saw his head and that bowl haircut.”

Dills passed the sedan and looked in the rearview mirror. She saw a white plate on its front that police had described.

Dills pulled off at the Kings Mountain exit and called her friend and boss, Todd Frady. “I was shocked at first,” he said. “She said, ‘I’m not sure, but it’s the weirdest feeling.’ ”

Frady kept Dills on the phone as he called a friend at the Kings Mountain police force on another line.

Dills said it’s not in her nature to be a sleuth. But she turned around and got back on U.S. 74.

“That was God telling me what to do,” she said.

She drove faster to catch up with the sedan. She got close enough to dictate the license plate number to Frady. Frady repeated it to his police contact.

Within minutes, Dills saw Shelby police cars do U-turns and turn on their blue lights.

Murder suspect Dylann Roof, 21, was arrested at U.S. 74 and Plato-Lee Road on the western edge of Shelby.

“I heard the sirens on the phone,” Frady said.

The rest of Dills’ day was a blur of texts, phone calls and news interviews. She was asked to appear on ABC’s “Good Morning America” early Friday.

“It was a feeling of relief for those people down there,” Dills said. “I could just see them holding hands in that prayer circle. I will be thanking God tonight for what he did, for giving those people the peace they deserve.”

Suspect in custody

Shortly before 4 p.m., the slender Roof, wearing a white T-shirt and a bullet-proof vest, was led handcuffed from the Shelby Police Department to a waiting police car, apparently to take him to court.

Later in the day, Roof boarded a small plane for the return trip to Charleston, where he’ll be formally charged.

The FBI has identified Roof as the suspect in the Wednesday night slaughter of nine members of a prayer group in Charleston’s most historic African American church. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Columbia confirmed Thursday that “an active hate crime investigation” is underway.

“The most important point is that the subject is now in custody; the immediate threat to the community does not exist,” said John Strong of Charlotte, head of FBI operations in North Carolina.

More than four hours before Dills spotted the shooting suspect in Gaston County, Roof apparently used a card at an ATM in Charlotte, near the intersection of Providence Road and Ballantyne Commons Parkway. His whereabouts otherwise are not yet publicly known.

Scene of the arrest

After Roof’s arrest Thursday morning, his black sedan remained parked in the driveway of a white bungalow at a busy intersection on U.S. 74, the main road through the foothills city and a popular route to the North Carolina mountains.

Elaine Elmore, who lives across the highway, said she knew something was wrong when she noticed Shelby police cars. She did not see Roof’s arrest.

“It’s scary to know that could happen right here,” she said, resting in a swing in her yard. “That would scare anybody, to know somebody that cold was right here. He could have come across the street and shot me sitting here.”

Jackie Sibley, a vice president of tourism for the Cleveland County Chamber of Commerce, said she was driving to work and talking to her sister-in-law on the phone when she noticed helicopters whirring above U.S. 74. The sister-in-law told her that the suspect in the church shootings had been captured in Shelby.

That’s when Sibley said she saw the black sedan surrounded by police cars. “I immediately said, ‘Holy cow! I think I just drove to the scene of the capture,” Sibley said in an email to the Observer.

Reporting from The Charlotte Observer and The (Columbia) State.