CHARLESTON, South Carolina — Snatching the cell phone of a dead friend off the floor, Polly Sheppard tried to dial 911 as a killer stalked the basement of her church.
Hiding beneath a table in the midst of a bloodbath, Sheppard became fumble fingered, unable to dial the three digits on her first try. As nine fellow worshipers lay dead or dying around her, Sheppard tried dialing again, this time with success.
“Please answer,” she said in nervous tones as the phone rang. “Oh God.”
A dispatcher soon picked up the line, asking about her emergency.
“There’s plenty people shot,’ said Sheppard. “He shot the pastor. He shot all the men in the church. Please come right away.”
“He’s still in here. I’m afraid. He’s still in here,” continued Sheppard. “He’s coming. He’s coming. He’s coming. Please.”
This scene was recalled during testimony by Sheppard on Wednesday during the federal trial of 22-year-old Dylann Roof, who is accused of the racially motivated killing of nine black men and women during a Bible study at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston on June 17, 2015.
Sheppard survived the attack, allegedly spared by Roof so that she might serve as a witness to his massacre in the historic black church in downtown Charleston. She was the final witness for the prosecution in a week-long case in which Roof, charged with 33 federal counts including hate crimes, faces the death penalty. After Sheppard’s testimony the defense rested their case without calling a single witness, unable to persuade a judge to allow the testimony of two mental-health experts. Roof declined to take the stand in his own defense.
After likely hearing closing arguments from each side on Thursday morning, a jury is expected to begin considering Roof’s guilt, weighing the previous testimony of shooting survivors, police, and forensic experts, as well as a taped confession and a racist manifesto, all of which was capped by Sheppard testifying about her near brush with death.
She recalled how tired she felt that evening, hoping to go home and eat after a full day volunteering at the church.
But Myra Thompson pleaded with her to remain for evening Bible study, and Sheppard could not deny her strong-willed friend. Roof also joined the prayer group that evening and was handed a pamphlet about the day’s lesson as well as a Bible. He sat next to the church’s pastor, the Reverend Clementa Pinckney.
Nearly an hour later, as Sheppard stood in prayer with her eyes closed, she heard a loud popping noise. She dismissed the noise as sparking from faulty electrical wiring, but soon thought better when another friend, Felicia Sanders, screamed that Roof was shooting everyone.
Sanders and her granddaughter survived by playing dead, and Sheppard herself dove for safety under a table as Roof allegedly began his shooting rampage. Nine others in the room were not so fortunate to escape Roof. When Sanders’s wounded 26-year-old son Tywanza asked Roof why he was doing this, Sheppard heard Roof reply, “I have to. I have to. You’re raping our women and taking over the nation.” Roof then allegedly shot Tywanza Sanders again, killing him.
When Roof saw Sheppard alive under the table, he asked if she had been harmed.
“Did I shoot you yet?” Sheppard recalled Roof asking her as he pointed a gun at her body.
“No,” replied Sheppard.
“I’m not going to,” Roof said. “I need you to tell the story.”
So Sheppard told the sordid story Wednesday at the Charleston Federal Courthouse, recalling the events that led to the death of her friend Thompson and the eight other victims, ages 26 to 87. During her testimony a recording of her 911 call was played, in which she described Roof as a “young, 21-year-old white dude” who was still roaming the church with a loaded handgun.
Before relating the details of the shooting on Wednesday, Sheppard reminisced about the victims, many of whom she knew well and none of whom could escape the hailstorm of at least 74 bullets allegedly fired from Roof’s handgun.
Daniel Simmons, 74, was known as “Dapper Dan” because of his sharp wardrobe that included monogrammed shirts, cufflinks, and brightly polished shoes.
“He used to dress very nice all the time,” Sheppard said of Simmons, who was shot at least six times according to a medical examiner who testified before Sheppard on Wednesday.
Church sexton Ethel Lance, 70, who was charged with keeping the church clean, always went the extra mile said Sheppard. She made the church smell good and put hand lotion in church restrooms.
“We don’t have that anymore,” said Sheppard, recalling the late contributions of Lance, who was shot at least six times.
Pastor Pinckney was known by Sheppard as “the gentle giant” because of his tall stature and compassion for the elderly. Also a South Carolina state senator, the 41-year-old Pinckney was shot at least five times.
Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, a 45-year-old high school track and field coach and mother of three adolescent children, was an excellent preacher that drew crowds at church.
“I could see her making bishop fast,” Sheppard said of Coleman-Singleton, also shot at least five times.
DePayne Middleton Doctor, 49, who could “sing like an angel” and was a mother to four young women and girls, died after being shot at least eight times.
Librarian Cynthia Hurd, 54, who always flashed a smile and led book discussions at church, died after being shot at least seven times.
Susie Jackson, 87, was a good cook and “always sweet, sweet,” said Sheppard. Jackson died after suffering at least 10 gunshots.
Tywanza Sanders, Sheppard said, was a happy poet and barber. He, too, was shot at least five times.
And Sheppard’s friend Thompson, 59, who had begged her to stay for Bible study, was sometimes charmingly bossy but also generous to the needy. Roof allegedly shot her at least eight times.
“Oh Lord have mercy,” Sheppard recalled Thompson saying as she died on the church basement floor.
Roof’s defense attorney, renowned death penalty lawyer David Bruck, did not cross examine Sheppard, as has been his custom with most of the prosecution’s witnesses. Bruck conceded early in the trial that he does not quibble with the government’s version of events. He has offered to plead Roof guilty to his alleged crimes in exchange for a life sentence, but the government has declined the offer and opted to press for the death penalty.
Should a jury convict Roof of the most serious charges, they will then consider whether the young man from Eastover, South Carolina — located about 100 miles from Charleston — should spend his life behind bars or be executed.
Roof has elected to represent himself during the sentencing phase of the trial, removing his lawyers despite being told such a strategy was “unwise” by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel. Roof, who stared blankly ahead during Sheppard’s entire testimony, previously jettisoned his lawyers during jury selection only to recall them before opening arguments.
Before jury selection he was deemed competent to stand trial following a mental evaluation.