A white gunman killed nine people who had gathered for a prayer meeting at Emanuel AME Church Wednesday night in the heart of downtown Charleston. At a press conference following the shooting, Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said, “I do believe this was a hate crime,” and indicated that the shooting would be investigated as a hate crime.

Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. also characterized the shooting as an act of hate.

“The only reason someone could walk into a church and shoot people praying is out of hate. The only reason,” Riley said. “It is the most dastardly act that one can possibly imagine, and we will bring that person to justice as soon as possible.”

Canine units and officers from the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office, S.C. Law Enforcement Division (SLED), and multiple federal agencies including the FBI and ATF are now involved in the investigation and the search for the gunman, who remains at large. The suspect is described as a white male, approximately 21 years old, with sandy blonde hair. Early reports indicated that he was wearing jeans, Timberland boots, and a gray sweatshirt or hoodie.

“We have investigators that are out tracking leads that are coming in, and we will continue to do that until we find this individual who has carried out this crime tonight and bring him to justice,” Mullen said. According to Mullen, a reward will be announced today for information leading to the gunman’s arrest. If you have any information about the gunman, you are asked to call Charleston County consolidated dispatch at (843) 743-7200.

According to Mullen, the shooter entered Emanuel AME around 9 p.m. and killed eight people. Two injured individuals were transported to Medical University Hospital, where one of them later died. No victims have been identified, but it is believed that state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor at Emanuel, was inside the building.

Emanuel AME Church, often referred to as Mother Emanuel, is one of the largest and oldest black congregations south of Baltimore. Its name, Emanuel, means “God with us” in Hebrew.

The Rev. Norvel Goff Sr., a presiding elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s 7th District, spoke at the press conference on behalf of Presiding Prelate Richard F. Norris.

“As a presiding elder, I’m here to report that Bishop Norris also reinforced what the mayor — he’s already spoken with Mayor Riley — and support the statement of the police chief,” Goff said. “We want the entire community to pray for safety for our people, and we would hope that this person who has committed this heinous crime, which is a hate crime, be brought to justice. So we stand in solidarity, but we also solicit your prayers for the family members who have lost loved ones tonight.”

A prayer vigil has been scheduled for noon Thursday at Morris Brown AME Church, 13 Morris St.

UPDATE: The Charleston Police Department has also released images of the alleged shooter as well as an informational flyer. 

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