Defense evaluations shed new light on Dylann Roof's mental state

Dylann Roof. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

Dylann Roof treasured his jail jumpsuit, the one with crisp and distinctive stripes. He followed jail rules, except when he hid a similar spare jumpsuit in his cell just in case he was given one that was too faded, too blended into nebulous shades of grey, for him to tolerate.

The man who sowed so much terror and chaos the night he gunned down nine people in a Charleston church long had craved order and predictability for himself. As a child, he insisted on being washed in a specific sequence, head to toe, and couldn't stand washcloths that had touched his feet first. 

As an adolescent, he stood over his mother as she laundered his clothes to ensure she used a certain detergent in the precise amount, his clothes all turned inside out. And when a defense attorney fighting for his life brought him clothes to wear to court, the 22-year-old focused not on facing possible execution but rather that she’d used too much detergent washing his sweater.

This is the portrait of Roof painted in newly released reports written by defense-hired mental health experts who spent hours interviewing the young man.

They describe an obsessive, isolated and emotionally flat young man diagnosed with autism combined with several mental illnesses including anxiety disorder. Until now, their interviews with Roof, his closest family, old friends and former pastors remained hidden, partly because the trial judge sealed them but also because Roof blocked his attorneys' plans to submit the evidence in court.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel unsealed a slew of documents related to Roof's mental state earlier in the week. Buried among them, the psychiatric reports offer new insights into the life and bizarre behaviors of the self-avowed white supremacist sentenced in January to die for shooting nine black worshippers at Emanuel AME Church's Bible study. They detail evidence of early delays in a boy who was intelligent, if socially withdrawn and anxious, but then spiraled into a teenager who retreated to the seclusion of his bedroom, mostly in the company of his cats and a computer.

Even those who knew him best and loved him most repeatedly described him as odd and withdrawn, socially clueless and devoid of emotion — not cruel or rude but simply blank. Once, when asked if he was afraid of anything, Roof replied: people.

His mother’s ex-boyfriend described a phase when Roof wore the same sweatshirt every day, its hood pulled up to hide his face. Roof insisted that his mother not stop alongside other cars in traffic because people would look at him. His worst fear.

As a child, he read encyclopedias and did well in school. On an IQ test he took after the killings, he scored in the superior range of intellectual function.

However, bizarre behaviors appeared early on. When he was about 8 years old, Roof noticed the “clouds were moving too fast." And that meant “something wrong or bad was going on," Paul Moberg, a clinical neuropsychologist, wrote in his report.

Roof began having what he thought were panic attacks when he was around 10 or 11 and increasingly feared leaving his house. 

As he headed into high school and young adulthood, his oddities grew more pronounced, and he withdrew further into a cocoon of isolation in his bedroom at his mother’s house. He had no close friends, no girlfriend, no aspirations to go to college or even get a job. He stopped going to high school because of his increasing anxiety about being around people — and worry about his acne. 

By May 2010, in his mid-teens, he self-medicated with drugs and alcohol and retreated to online classes only. His older sister "estimated that he had basically been living inside his room on his computer" for almost five years before the church killings, wrote Rachel Loftin, a licensed clinical psychologist and nationally known expert in autism spectrum disorder.

"At the same time, his psychosis was developing. He became increasingly controlled by fear, both in his racist beliefs (about blacks harming whites and the alleged Jewish media cover-up) and about his own health and well being," wrote Donna Maddox, a forensic psychiatrist who met with Roof nine times in 2016 and interviewed his immediate family.

Roof fixated on his appearance and physical health even as he refused to cooperate with mental health treatment. In particular, he obsessed over the size of his forehead and a thyroid condition. 

Indeed, he did suffer a thyroid disorder, but it was so minor that the endocrinologist who diagnosed it didn't think it required medication right away. Roof, however, called the doctor's office back after his visit wanting to start medication right away. He believed his thyroid was getting larger.

"He thinks his thyroid is getting bigger. It may be best if you call the (patient), he is extremely anxious," an office assistant noted to the doctor in 2014.

Roof fixated on his thyroid condition, perhaps as an answer to his perception that testosterone was pooling on the left side of his body or other problems he sensed within himself.

"He would go to the doctor by himself and spend his own money to get blood work or whatever tests he could get," even when his doctors said they were not necessary. "The doctors said there really was not anything wrong with him, and this upset Dylann," Loftin wrote.

Around that time, he also began researching racist ideology online.

"Dylann pursued his preoccupation with racism with an autistic intensity. It pervaded all aspects of his life," Loftin wrote.

For instance, one acquaintance told an FBI agent that Roof "maintained 88 friends on Facebook, which is a reference to Hitler," added Loftin, who interviewed Roof for almost 20 hours in 2016.

Roof embraced his racist views with such fervor that in the months before his killing spree he left his bedroom, bought a gun, amassed 88 bullets and traveled a half-dozen times in as many months to scout Emanuel AME and visit sites in Charleston with ties to slavery and the Civil War.

In 2016, the year after his arrest for the shooting, he was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, a range of developmental conditions characterized by difficulty with relationships and communications, along with several mental illnesses. Those disorders allowed his mind to form delusions — fixed, false beliefs — namely that blacks were slaughtering whites and taking over the country, the experts reported.

However, the reports don't detail exactly how those ailments, which millions of productive and law-abiding Americans suffer, drove a previously non-violent man to target and gun down the most innocent black people he could imagine. His victims included an 87-year-old, several pastors, and mostly older and middle-aged women who cowered beneath tables when he opened fire during their Bible study. An 11-year-old girl survived by playing dead.

Even after his arrest, despite widespread shows of racial unity across the nation, Roof clung to his belief that he would start a race war and be freed from jail by white nationalists. Other bizarre behaviors continued, as well, the experts reported.

He fixated on his hair, believing it was falling out. His eyelashes were falling out, too. His fears keyed on going bald. If he did, he told Maddox, he'd hang himself.

Through it all, Roof maintained that he wasn't developmentally disabled or mentally ill, and his attorneys worried his disorders kept him from recognizing his own symptoms.

Videotapes of his jailhouse visits with family members showed continuing strange behaviors. During one visit from his grandfather, a widely respected attorney in Columbia, Roof demanded: “Tell me something worthwhile.” He asked if his sister’s new baby was transgender.

And when his grandfather explained that his grandmother was distraught about the gruesome crime and Roof’s incarceration, Roof didn’t grasp why.

It had been a year, he said, and they “should be over it.”

Reach Glenn Smith at 843-937-5556 or follow him on Twitter @glennsmith5.

Jennifer Berry Hawes is a member of the Watchdog and Public Service team who worked on the newspaper's Pulitzer-Prize winning investigation, "Till Death Do Us Part."