SHELBY, N.C. — For 13 hours and 44 minutes last week, an unemployed high school dropout just barely of legal drinking age was the most wanted man in the United States.
Dylann Storm Roof is accused of mercilessly shooting nine African-American people with a semiautomatic handgun equipped with laser sights on Wednesday evening inside a historic church in Charleston, S.C.
The 21-year-old avowed white supremacist allegedly told one survivor that he would let her live so she could tell the story of what he’d done. Then he fled into the night.
After that startling scene, Roof’s getaway and the ensuing manhunt ended in an unexpectedly mundane fashion and in an unlikely place: a traffic stop in Shelby, a small town between Charlotte and Asheville in the rolling foothills of North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains.
“We had no idea the guy would end up here,” said Rusty Stroupe, a local college baseball coach. “Somebody attacks somebody inside a church, we’re all affected by that. This guy deserves justice for what he has done.”
By all accounts, Roof showed no signs of agitation during and after his arrest in Shelby — the antithesis of the evil gunman who Charleston officials say spouted hateful speech while slaying his nine victims, reportedly telling them they had to die because they were black.
Yahoo News pieced together the inside story of Roof’s day in the town locally known as the “City of Pleasant Living” through a series of interviews with local law enforcement and community leaders who interacted with him.
If they know, neither South Carolina investigators nor the FBI have officially revealed what brought Roof to Shelby, a rural community 247 miles from the crime scene. His half-sister’s fiancé lives here, but there’s nothing to indicate that they are close or that Roof attempted to go the man’s house.
“Why Shelby? I don’t think anybody can figure that out,” said Mike Miller, Cleveland County district attorney.
Shelby police Chief Jeff Ledford was setting up for a cookout and neighborhood-policing event when he learned of the arrest.
“I was stunned at first,” Ledford said.
Four hours earlier, Charleston police had released images of Roof and his black Hyundai sedan, taken from footage on the church security cameras.
Debbie Dills, who first spotted Roof in his Hyundai on U.S. 74 heading toward Shelby, called the sighting “divine intervention.”
Dills was on her way to work in neighboring Kings Mountain, N.C., when she first saw the car she believed to be Roof’s. She called her boss to be sure. He got on the phone with local police to describe what she saw. The license plate was a match.
The stretch of U.S. 74 that runs through Shelby is only about 10 miles long, but it cuts through the well-traveled commercial district. Officers knew they had to close in fast, but with caution.
“The planning was done as they were getting prepared to stop him,” Ledford said. “When dealing with someone who may not have a lot to lose, you always worry about what they may do and what dangers they present.”
As police lights flashed in its rearview mirror, the black sedan pulled into a rock driveway near the western city limits.
At 10:44 a.m., Roof’s flight was finished.
The scrawny driver calmly handed over his driver’s license, as a group of Shelby officers surrounded the car, guns drawn. Roof apparently made no move toward the alleged murder weapon, a .45-caliber handgun that was still in his car.
“The stop was textbook, and fortunately uneventful,” Ledford said.
Miller, the district attorney, realizes “it could have been a lot worse.”
“If the man has already shot nine people, he could have easily come out shooting and taken out some of our officers,” he said.
Regardless, Ledford wasn’t taking any chances. It was the chief’s responsibility to keep his most infamous detainee, and Shelby, safe until the FBI and South Carolina investigators could arrive to interview Roof.
With the department’s phone ringing nonstop in the background, the young suspect with the bowl-cut hair was locked away in a second-floor conference room with an officer watching over him. Outside police headquarters just off the town’s historic square, reporters and gawkers began to fill the parking lot.
In response to the police and racial tensions that have boiled over across the country, Ledford had been proactively working with a group of Shelby clergy to build trust and improve communication.
“He had promised us that when something big happened, that we would be contacted and would be asked to be there,” said Strickland Maddox, one of a handful of pastors who answered the chief’s call to action after Roof’s capture.
“Organized chaos,” Ledford later called it. “Because there were so many moving parts.”
Including feeding the unexpected arrestee.
“He hadn’t eaten, they said, in a couple of days,” Maddox told Yahoo News. “They bought him a hamburger. They just sent out for it. I guess one of the police officers went and picked it up.”
Ledford confirmed that this purchase was made.
“He did have something to eat while he was there, and he was secured in cuffs the entire time,” the chief said.
At police headquarters, Maddox, 60, and the other ministers prayed for the department, the Charleston victims and Roof.
Maddox, who leads Eskridge Grove Baptist Church, saw the alleged gunman twice in the police hallways.
“Very sad eyes,” he said. “Just the look on his face, and to see that he was a kid, I’m sure that he had gotten derailed somewhere along the way.
“The thought went through my mind how his world had turned upside down overnight. Then I had to flash back to the victims and their families and realize that their lives also had been turned upside down. All of them needed prayer,” he said.
When they weren’t praying, the ministers were sizing up the gathering outside, which had grown to more than 100 people.
“There were more than reporters out there,” Maddox said. “One of the things we were supposed to be doing is gauging the attitude of those in the crowd. To make sure we didn’t have no hotheads in there.”
FBI agents and South Carolina investigators reportedly obtained a videotaped confession from Roof while he was at the Shelby Police Department on Thursday afternoon. Both the FBI and Charleston police have declined to discuss particulars of the investigation.
Four blocks away, at the county courthouse, Miller and others scrambled to get a hearing in front of a judge in hope that Roof would waive his extradition back to South Carolina.
“In the interest of my district and taxpayers, why would we want to keep him any longer than we have to?” Miller said. “The longer he stays in our jurisdiction, it’s not really helping bring closure to those poor folks in Charleston.”
The late afternoon hearing was so rushed that Judge Ali Paksoy said he didn’t notice that someone in law enforcement had locked the courtroom doors without his knowledge, keeping the public and reporters out of the 10-minute session.
Paksoy said he also found Roof to be “calm and polite.”
“It was weird,” the judge told Yahoo News. “After reading everything that had happened, I guess I expected him to be belligerent, or perhaps that we’d have some problems, but we didn’t.”
Roof was on a private jet bound for South Carolina with detectives well before sunset the day of his arrest.
“Most of us are glad we were able to get him in and out and back to Charleston, where he needs to be,” said Miller.
The capture put Shelby on the map for many who might have gone a lifetime without hearing of the town. But residents here are hoping the brief moment of notoriety will fade quickly.
“This is probably the biggest thing to hit Shelby in a while,” Miller said. “We’ll be happy to get back to our sleepy town.”
(This story has been updated since it first published.)
Jason Sickles is a reporter for Yahoo News. Follow him on Twitter (@jasonsickles).