Charleston Church Massacre: What Kind of Person Attacks a Bible Study Group?

A small prayer circle forms near the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, June 17, 2015. A gunman opened fire on Wednesday at the historic African-American church in downtown Charleston. Randall Hill/Reuters

Dylann Roof, 21, who was captured by police Thursday, is suspected of killing nine people at a Charleston, South Carolina church Wednesday night, the Federal Bureau of Investigation confirmed to local media.

After mass shootings, it is typical for the press and pundits to raise theories about the suspected or confirmed killer's motivation, many of which are far more sensational than factual.

So Newsweek spoke to Mary Ellen O'Toole, a leading expert in psychopathy and crime scene behavior who served as an FBI agent for 28 years--14 in the behavioral analysis unit, profiling mass murderers and serial killers. O'Toole has worked on the Columbine, Red Lake and Virginia Tech school shootings and was the lead author of The School Shooter: A Threat Assessment Perspective. The seminal guide to school shootings details procedure for determining whether troubling behavior might lead to violence. O'Toole presently directs George Mason University's Forensic Science program.

What does the suspect's behavior say about him?

You had somebody who walked in who was very cool, calm and collected. He left a witness so she could tell the police what happened. He was not agitated. He had said a few things apparently about what the motivation was--according to witnesses, he calmly walked in calmly and walked out, and sat there an hour beforehand. This was somebody who engaged in pre-planning that was not impulsive. This is someone I would call "mission oriented." The intent is for maximum lethality --in other words, to kill as many people as possible. They take risks even if it can expose them to be apprehended.

Is the suspect mentally ill?

This was a very cold-blooded act. It indicates there was a lack of empathy for the victims. This does not mean he's crazy. You're going to find people wanting to find mental defects with this person--that he suffers from depression, that he's bipolar, that he showed signs of mental illness. People are going to look for some kind of mental excuse for why this behavior occurred. You can have a mental health issue but still know right from wrong and be able to understand the consequences of your actions. Then you also have people absent mental illness who kill because they want to kill. It's an important thing because otherwise, people are looking for indicators for prior mental health issues and not the right indicators of threatening behavior becoming more violent. The vast majority of people who do have legitimate mental health problems are not violent.

Did the suspected shooter just snap?

Fantasizing about this shooting would have gone back many years. There were a lot of red flags along the way with this guy. Here's something that for me is very disturbing with these people: This kind of thinking pattern takes years to develop--years to develop. What is it that families are not seeing or recognizing that should have been recognized, should have been seen? When this behavior starts they're often living at home. They're little boys, they're like probably 7, 8 years of age, when they develop this thinking behavior. There would be something we call "leakage."

What is leakage?

Leakage is a term we developed in the FBI that is defined as this: The person will write something or will say something to a friend or family member, and it may not be, "Hey, I'm going to go to a church in South Carolina and do this." It might be a little more opaque. There will be a kind of pattern over time when a person makes comments about black people, and makes nihilistic comments about hating the world, that black people are taking over the world. They will become more and more interested or obsessed with other mass killers and use them not as saying, "That's awful behavior," but, "Hey that guy got it right. The shooters in Columbine, they knew what they were doing."

What is less opaque "leakage"?

They may even practice. In other cases they've dressed up in the clothing they're going to wear, how it's going to be on the day of the shooting. Oftentime, they're posting on their Facebook pages. There's also more and more of a disconnect from other people if they have friends, if they were in a group. And even if the group is radical, they separate eventually from the group, because the group says, "You're just too extreme to us." There's a separation along the way that occurs.

Are all mass killers white males?

That's what we've seen most frequently is white males. I think the high-profile ones are probably more whites than there are other races, but the number still remains small enough that you can't use that as a predictor. And not all, but many, are in that vulnerable age group which is late teens into their 20s, but we certainly have examples where men are older.

Why is this age group vulnerable?

This is a period of time when--and I almost hate to say this, but they're not completely mature. It's a period of time when they are still developing their coping behaviors. It's a period of time when they're idealistic. If violence is going to be part of their life, it's at that age when they start acting out violently--when life throws them a curve. We know that at that age group too their personalities are not completely formed and that their brains are not completely developed when they're in the late teens and early 20s, I think that's important as well.