Federal authorities plan to investigate as a hate crime the shooting at a historic black church in Charleston, South Carolina, that left nine dead, the U.S. Department of Justice announced Thursday.
The probe, which involves the department's Civil Rights Division, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office in South Carolina, was announced as a manhunt continued for the gunman who entered the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church during a weekly prayer meeting Wednesday night and began shooting.
Charleston police Chief Greg Mullen told reporters early Thursday that the gunman, described as a white male in his early to mid-20s walked into the church, where a weekly scheduled prayer meeting was going on, sat for about an hour, then opened fire.
Mullen said eight people died at the church, while another died after being taken to a hospital. Authorities released a flier with photographs of the suspected gunman as he entered the church.
Charleston Emergency Management Director Mark Wilbert holds a flier showing surveillance footage of a suspect wanted in connection with the shooting Wednesday at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C., June 18, 2015.
The police chief said the victims included six women and three men, none of whom were immediately identified.
Mullen said the gunman is still at large and is believed to be extremely dangerous.
Police were forced to evacuate the neighborhood surrounding the church after receiving a bomb threat as well. The threat was later lifted.
Mullen said police are investigating whether the two incidents are linked.
The FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other agencies have joined in the investigation, Mullen said.
Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley called the assault "a most unspeakable and heartbreaking tragedy."
“The only reason that someone could walk into a church and shoot people praying is out of hate,” Riley said. “It is the most dastardly act that one could possibly imagine, and we will bring that person to justice. ... This is one hateful person.”
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Emanuel AME Church was founded back in the mid-19th century, making it one of the oldest African-American congregations in the southern United States.
Pastor among those killed
The church's pastor, Clementa Pinckney, was among the nine killed, State House Minority leader Todd Rutherford told The Associated Press.
Pinckney, 41, was a married father of two who was elected to the statehouse at age 23, making him its youngest member at the time.
“He never had anything bad to say about anybody, even when I thought he should,” Rutherford said. “He was always out doing work either for his parishioners or his constituents. He touched everybody.”
South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley released a statement early Thursday morning offering her condolences to the victims, saying, "We'll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another."
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who officially launched his 2016 presidential campaign earlier this week, canceled an event in Charleston Thursday morning.
Soon after Wednesday night's shooting, a group of pastors huddled together in a prayer circle across the street from the church.
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Community organizer Christopher Cason said he felt certain the shootings were racially motivated.
"I am very tired of people telling me that I don't have the right to be angry," Cason said. "I am very angry right now."
The attack follows the April shooting of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, in neighboring North Charleston by Michael Slager, a white police officer, leading to major protests in the area.
Slager has been charged with murder in that case, one of a number of deaths of unarmed black men in encounters with police that have raised racial tensions in the United States.
The shooting prompted South Carolina lawmakers to push through a bill helping all police agencies in the state get body cameras. Pinckney, the pastor, was a sponsor of that bill.
Some material for this report came from AP and Reuters.