An American void

An American void

He showed them his gun. He spoke of doing ‘something crazy.’ Why do the friends Dylann Roof stayed with before the Charleston church shooting shrug about their inaction?

Published on September 12, 2015


The trailer where Dylann Roof found refuge is faded yellow with a thousand tiny dents. It is on the western edge of Columbia, S.C., along an unpaved road strewn with damp garbage, and it is where Roof briefly lived until the day he allegedly killed nine black church members at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

Now, a month after the June 17 shooting, the blinds are drawn at noon and the family that hosted Roof is inside, where the boom of gunfire and explosions is so loud the trailer vibrates.

Above: The trailer where the Meek brothers live with their mother is in Red Bank, S.C., on the western edge of Columbia. The brothers call the town Dead Bank.

“Ha ha. I just killed all them mothers,” says Justin Meek, 18, playing a video game in which blood and body parts fly across a 42-inch TV screen.

“You got enemy on the other side! Use a grenade!” says his brother Jacob, 15. “Kill yourself! Kill yourself!”

On a lopsided couch is Lindsey Fry, 19, flicking her tongue ring, eyes locked on a cracked cellphone for news about the shooting, which has lately included her boyfriend Joey, 21, the third Meek brother who lives in the trailer, which is in a town called Red Bank that the Meeks call Dead Bank.

“Wow,” she suddenly says and reads aloud what she is seeing on her phone: “The expanded scope of the investigation now includes people with whom Roof associated in the weeks before the June 17 shooting.”

She looks at Joey. Joey looks at his two brothers and his mother, Kim Konzny.

They are the people with whom Roof was associating in the weeks before the shooting, and this is the place he drifted into with little resistance, an American void where little is sacred and little is profane and the dominant reaction to life is what Joey does now, looking at Lindsey. He shrugs.

For several weeks, Dylann Roof slept on the floor here. He played video games. According to the Meeks, he showed off his new Glock .45-caliber handgun, drank heavily and retreated to his car to listen to opera. And sometimes he confided in his childhood friend Joey, who wasn’t the type to ask questions.

When Roof showed up asking Joey for a place to stay, Joey says, he invited him in without hesitation. When Roof told him that he believed in segregation, Joey didn’t ask why. When Roof mentioned driving two hours to Charleston and visiting a church called Emanuel AME, he didn’t ask anything about it. When Roof said that he was going to “do something crazy,” as Joey remembers it, he and Lindsey hid Roof’s gun but then gave it back, blowing it all off as a drunken episode.

“I didn’t take him seriously,” is what Joey says again and again to the people who keep asking the same questions again and again, including investigators who arrived at the trailer after one of the most notorious mass killings in recent American history.

Why did he do nothing? they asked.

What kind of people would do nothing?

The Meek brothers -- from left to right Jacob, Joey and Justin -- constantly peek out the window of the trailer. Law enforcement officials have visited the trailer park several times since Dylann Roof was arrested after nine people were killed at Emanuel AME church in Charleston, S.C.

The trailer, waking up:

It is nearly noon and the dogs are barking.

“Who’s here?” Jacob says, jumping up and peeking through the blinds, but the view is the same as ever — no people, an abandoned trailer next door, a skinny pine tree and some empty vodka minis in a patch of weedy grass. Beyond is the whoosh of highway traffic and the rest of Lexington County, a place that is roughly 80 percent white, the result of decades of white flight from neighboring counties and Ku Klux Klan activity, including a drive-by shooting of three black teenagers in 1996 — not that any sense of history filters into the trailer. “The KKK, that’s one thing I don’t understand,” as Joey says. “Was the KKK an actual violent thing?”

There are no books here, no magazines, and the wood-paneled walls are bare. A stained blue towel hangs over the window in the door. The only furniture in the living room is the couch, two side tables and a metal stool positioned in front of the TV, which is wired to two large speakers and the Xbox that one of the Meek brothers is always playing.

“Man, blew my car up,” says Justin, 18, a high school dropout who is sitting shirtless on the stool.

Kim, 41 and twice divorced, is cleaning. She is constantly cleaning. She wipes the kitchen counters. She straightens the blinds. She folds up the sofa where Lindsey and Joey sleep, folds the sheet and zebra blanket, and drops them in the corner where Roof often lounged, as Jacob does now.

The trailer's residents: Justin Meek, 18; Jacob Meek, 15; Kim Konzny, 41; Lindsey Fry, 19; and Joey Meek, 21.

The trailer's residents: Kim Konzny, 41; Joey Meek, 21; Lindsey Fry, 19; Justin Meek, 18; and Jacob Meek, 15.

“Mom, want to know my theory? Dylann stayed here to get revenge on Joey,” says Jacob, but no one pays attention.

He is 15, and wears long-sleeved T-shirts that flop over his hands, a habit developed in middle school, when he used to cut himself. He says he stopped doing that when Joey found out, held a knife to his arm and said, “You want to do it? Do it right. Let’s cut it open, let’s see your bone.” He wears a wristband that says “FEEL,” and he is pacing around the living room when Lindsey, who wound up here after running away from home with a heroin addict, comes out of the shower.

She adjusts a faded pink bra under a thin tank top. She yawns and steps over the floor vent where Joey had her hide Roof’s gun. She settles on the couch with her pit bull puppy, Daisy.

“Oh Daisy,” she coos to the dog. She lights a cigarette and starts scrolling on her cellphone. “It’s hot,” she says after a while. “Jacob, you cold?”

“I like the cold,” Jacob says, pulling his sleeves over his hands. “You don’t like the cold?”

“Yeah, well, kind of,” Lindsey says.

“You like lake water,” Jacob says mysteriously, but her attention is back to the phone, which she will look at for hours as she waits for Joey, who is out building a fence, an off-the-books day job of the sort available to a high school dropout with a record of juvenile delinquency.

In some ways, everything happening in the trailer is because of Joey. He has an amateur tattoo on his forearm that says “loyalty,” which translates into an open-door policy for whichever troubled friend happens to show up at the trailer. Lindsey was one of those, and so was Roof, a childhood friend who got back in touch this spring after a lapse of several years.

Joey was happy to hear from him. For one thing, Roof had a car and could take them places, including, one day, a lake. He dropped the Meeks off there and disappeared. The next day Joey and Lindsey were in the trailer behind theirs with friends when Lindsey saw the news alert on her phone.

“He did it,” Joey remembers thinking immediately.

They went back to their trailer. They locked the door and drew the blinds. They turned on the TV and watched the flashing red lights around Emanuel AME. A historic black church, Joey now learned. A Bible study. Nine people.

The Meeks stayed up all night, peeking through the blinds, hoping that the suspect still at large was not really the person who had just been in their trailer. But when the surveillance tape of the blond bowl cut came out the next morning, Joey cursed the TV and called the police.

He identified the Timberland boots Roof was wearing. He identified his thin T-shirt and the black marks on it, and with an urgency that startled the Meeks, FBI agents arrived at the trailer door within the hour — coming into the wood-paneled living room, taking two shirts Roof had left, his empty vodka bottles, and then taking Joey.

Flowers cover the sidewalk in front of Charleston's Emanuel AME Church, where nine church members were shot and killed on June 17.

He says he was questioned about what Roof had told him, but that after a while, it seemed like the questions were beginning to dwell on the extent of his own involvement.

Why did he not alert police when Roof intimated his plans? If he suspected Roof on the night of the shooting, as Joey says he did, why did he not call police at that point? Why did he give Roof his gun back?

“People think it’s my fault,” he says now, home from work, talking with Lindsey. He looks at his cellphone.

“You think the FBI got my phone tapped?” he asks.

“I bet they have my phone tapped,” says Lindsey, who was also questioned.

“Would you believe your friend if they said something like that when they were drunk?” Joey says, shaking his head. “You can’t tell me you would. I didn’t believe it. I brushed it off.”

“Well, I said to the FBI, you don’t know what it’s like to be in this situation,” says Lindsey.

“Exactly,” Joey says, and once again he is going over everything that happened.

How he cursed Roof when he saw the surveillance tape.

How he cursed him again as he watched the court hearing where the daughter of a 70-year-old victim said to Roof, “I will never talk to her ever again,” and the mother of a 26-year-old victim said, “Every fiber in my body hurts,” and “You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I  know.”

How he took away Roof’s gun that drunken night, and how he gave it back. Why had he given it back?

“I thought he was going to do something that night, in his drunkenness,” Joey says, and as he goes over it again, he starts thinking less about Roof than another friend of his named Shane, and what Shane had done in his own drunkenness.

Joey Meek, left, watches as his brother Jacob plays a video game while Lindsey Fry does dishes. One or more of the Meek brothers and their friends are playing the Xbox almost constantly.

Before the trailer, the Meek brothers lived in another part of Lexington, in a house in a subdivision called Ridgewood. A family photo from those days shows them smiling in front of a brick fireplace, the boys in button-downs and polos.

Roof had lived on an adjacent street, and Shane lived nearby. Shane boxed with Justin, taught Jacob survival skills and was closest in age and friendship to Joey. When he was a teenager, Shane made YouTube videos with titles such as “Shane on Ambien,” in which he stumbles through a disheveled house while several younger kids laugh at him, push him around and swat him with a drumstick. Shane often stayed with the Meeks, who liked having him around. “Hi, Mom,” he would say to Kim when he came through the door, making her laugh.

He would stay for weeks at the house in Ridgewood, and when Kim lost the house to foreclosure, he would stay at the trailer, even though he had his own trailer by then. He was around when Roof arrived in May, but the two didn’t interact very much. Mostly, Shane drank and played video games. He was 21 at that point and saying troubling things that none of the Meeks took seriously. One day it was about his sorrow over not seeing his newborn son, who was living with his estranged girlfriend in another state. One day it had to do with being evicted. One night he messaged Justin saying that he was going to drink a bottle of bug poison, and Justin didn’t believe him and went back to playing Xbox.

Kim was the first to find out. She called Joey to say that Shane had put a shotgun in his mouth and killed himself. Joey remembers getting teary, and he also remembers not believing it and asking Roof to drive him over to Shane’s trailer.

Lindsey and Roof stayed in the car, and Lindsey remembers Roof not saying a word or expressing any kind of emotion. Joey and Justin, meanwhile, walked up to Shane’s door, half-expecting to see Shane waiting for them, laughing that they fell for his joke. But then they were inside, seeing Shane’s blood all over the couch, and Joey was getting sick.

“Anyways, when I was in there I had grabbed his boots — they’re right over there,” Joey says now, pointing to a pair of worn cowboy boots he took from the trailer that night as a memento. The boots are mixed into a pile of shoes in the bedroom where sometimes Shane slept, and sometimes Roof slept, and where Justin now drops onto a twin mattress on the floor and closes his eyes.

Daisy, a puppy, sits near the boots that belonged to Shane, a friend of the Meeks who killed himself in May. Joey took the boots when he visited the trailer where Shane died. Justin Meek, 18, sitting with neighbor Christon Scriven, motions for everyone to be quiet because he thought he heard a car outside. He was right. Law enforcement officials had come to serve papers related to the Dylann Roof case.

A neighbor named Christon Scriven comes in and lies next to Justin. Christon, who is black, also knew Roof and says of him, “I still love him as a friend.” Then comes a friend they call J. Boogie, and a tattooed guy they call Gizmo, who sits on the carpet. A brown cigarette is rolled, lit and passed around.

“Joey!” Christon calls into the living room. “You’re stupid!”

Justin laughs and falls in and out of sleep. Gizmo stumbles to the mattress, drops and sleeps, and after a while, Christon says, “I have no sympathy for people. Nobody has any sympathy for me. I care for me and me only.”

He passes the cigarette to Justin, and Justin drops ashes in the bed, and in the chemical-smelling haze, Christon plays a country song on his phone. “Well I caught my wife with a young man and it cost me 99,” he and Justin sing.

He switches to Lil Wayne. “Family first, you get your family killed,” he and Justin rap, and the dogs start barking.

“The police here?” Christon says. Justin looks up. Joey comes in and looks through the blinds. Nothing. Christon aims a finger at him — “Bang,” he whispers — and Joey leaves.

“Joseph!” Christon yells after him.

“Hey!” Justin calls.

“Somebody! Anybody!” Christon yells, but nobody answers. Soon Justin is asleep again, and Christon is looking at him. He rubs the back of his hand on Justin’s cheek. He takes a lighter and flicks it at Justin’s hair.

Gizmo wakes up, goes to the kitchen, gets a bottle of syrup and squeezes it into his mouth.

It is nearly sundown when Kim comes home after being out all day.

“She’s here!” Jacob yells, and he gets up to make a frozen pizza.

Kim yanks up a crumpled hamburger wrapper off the floor. She grabs two plastic cups filled with cigarette butts and empties them into the garbage.

“Jacob!” she snaps when he drops the pizza carton on the floor. “Pick up that trash! Pick it up now!”

He picks it up.

“I’m so tired of these people over here, all day, every day,” Kim yells to no one. “I have no peace! I have no quiet!”

She goes into her bedroom on the other side of the trailer and shuts the door.

Kim Konzny checks her phone during a break from her job at Waffle House. She previously worked as a medical technician until losing that job.

When she comes out, her long, black hair is piled into a bun. It is near 10 p.m. She gets into her Toyota, a black Waffle House visor dangling from the rearview mirror, and turns onto the highway.

In the dark mile ahead, the Waffle House is bright and sharp, and this is where Kim found a job after her second husband left, and, as she says, “everything went backwards.”

“Hash browns?” she says at the start of a shift that will end near dawn.

“Scattered and smothered,” she calls to the cook.

She wipes the counters, refills the napkin holders, pours water into the Bunn Automatic, and when break time arrives, goes out into the muggy night. She sits on a curb and smokes, scrolling through the phone where she keeps photos of life before the trailer.

There is the mother and father she loved. A decent childhood in South Carolina.

The first husband, a military man. Joey, Justin and Jacob, who was born in Fairbanks, Alaska, where the husband was stationed and where Kim says he started saying things like “No one could ever love you,” and she left, eventually moving the boys back to South Carolina.

The second husband, Sean, her friend since kindergarten. He is the one in the photo by the fireplace where the boys are in pinstripes and polo shirts, where Kim is smiling, where Jacob, Justin and Joey are smiling, Joey’s chin tilted up slightly, an arm draped around Sean’s shoulder.

“My beautiful family whom I love greatly!” reads the caption.

This was at the house in Ridgewood. It was vinyl-sided with two stories and a decent yard. And though Joey had started climbing out of his bedroom window at night, Sean was trying to keep him in line. The boys had friends Kim liked, including the quiet one with a blond bowl cut, and the funny one with dark, curly hair. The family went to church, Kim got her degree as a medical technician and a job in her field, and this was how life was going, she says, until the Friday she came home from Aaron’s rent-to-own furniture store — “He said he wanted an L-shaped couch,” she says. “He said he wanted an ottoman” — and Sean said he was leaving her.

That fall was when Jacob started cutting his arms. Joey dropped out of high school. Kim lost her job, couldn’t afford the house and rented the banged-up trailer off the highway.

She lost 10 pounds, then 20, and went to a doctor who diagnosed her with anxiety and depression. She got the job at Waffle House. She got on food stamps. She started spending hours shut in her bedroom, posting self-help mantras on Facebook, and it was somewhere between “God can restore what is broken” and “Pray to have eyes to see the best in people” that the blond kid became an alleged mass murderer, and the curly-headed one killed himself, and Kim became someone who tries hard not to think about much beyond the next cigarette, which she finishes now as she keeps scrolling in the last minutes of her break.

“Don’t let this world make you bitter,” reads one post.

“Friend says shooting suspect supported segregation,” reads another.

“Hi Kimmy,” reads a text message from Shane’s mother. “I’ve been a wreck. I don’t know how he could have done it. Kimmy, I loved him so much and I can’t stop crying.”

Kim drops her phone. The screen cracks. “Dammit,” she says, and break is over.

Konzny sometimes hangs around at the Waffle House after her shift is over.

She goes back inside, where a regular says to her, “Hello, little girl.”

“Hey,” she says.

“How’s Joey doing?” he asks.

“Working,” she says of the son she is constantly telling to “go out there and grow as a young man” and “get it together” and “stop hanging onto my coat feathers,” and whose video she now shows to the cook.

“Look, my son’s on TV,” she says, showing him a video of an interview Joey gave after the shooting, talking about Roof. The cook glances at the screen and goes back to frying. “My son called the FBI at 8:15 that morning — yep. He’s his best friend. Maybe his only friend.” She puts the phone back in her pocket and moves on to her tables.

After 2 a.m., it is quiet again, and she sits at the counter to eat a plate of scrambled eggs.

Two waiters, a young man and a young woman, are talking.

“I’m one drop away from killing everyone,” he says.

“My last day at McDonald’s I wanted to kill everyone,” she says.

“I can’t kill myself, because then I’d go to hell, so I’m stuck here,” he says, and fake punches her in the arm. She flinches.

“I’m very sensitive,” she says.

“I’m going to go home. Watch TV,” he says.

“No one cares,” she says. “I need a hug.”

He holds up a large steak knife and smiles. She winces and laughs weakly, and Kim finishes eating, drops the heavy plate in the sink and, three hours later, goes back to the trailer to see what is waiting for her there.

Justin Meek reaches out his hand to bum a cigarette from Lindsey Fry.
Joey Meek sheds his shirt upon coming home after a 14-hour day of work.
TOP LEFT: Justin Meek lounges while watching a violent movie that is loud enough to get the attention of family dogs, Gracie and Daisy.
TOP RIGHT: Justin Meek reaches out his hand to bum a cigarette from Lindsey Fry.
ABOVE LEFT: Joey Meek sheds his shirt upon coming home after a 14-hour day of work.
ABOVE RIGHT: Jacob Meek regularly wears shirts with sleeves so long they flop over his hands. He started wearing the oversize shirts to hide scars when he developed a habit of cutting himself, which he has since stopped.

What is waiting is more of the same.

“You see that?” Lindsey says one day, looking through the blinds, the dogs barking. “They stopped in the driveway — a white Jeep,” she says, but the white Jeep leaves, and she goes back to scrolling on her cellphone.

Another day, Justin is playing Xbox, grenades exploding, bodies flying, and he says, “Mom, when did Shane die?”

“Why bring up that subject?” Jacob says, pacing, sleeves flopping. “Why?”

Another day, Kim goes into her bedroom, closes the door, smokes a cigarette and says, “It’s like we’re being punished for something, only I can’t figure out what.”

Another day, Jacob opens the door and stands next to Kim, who is in bed scrolling with one hand, smoking with the other.

“Mom,” he says.

“Mom, Mom, Mom,” he says, knees pressed against her bed.

“Mom?” he says, and lies in bed with her.

“Mom, Mom,” he says, nudging close to her, but she inches away, and he goes back to the living room, where Lindsey is hugging her puppy, who keeps throwing up.

Another day, Joey comes home from work with another friend in need of a place to stay for a while, this one named Brandon, who pours himself a glass of iced tea and sits on the living-room floor.

Everyone who lives in the trailer smokes.

The drinking continues. The smoking continues. The chemical haze continues. The cellphone scrolling continues. The blinds stay shut. The blue towel hangs, and the shrugging continues, too, right up until one night when, as they will recall later, there’s a knock at the door.

It is a man no one knows except Brandon, who had argued with Brandon earlier and who now barges into the trailer, pulls out a handgun and cocks it.

He points the gun at Brandon. He points it at Jacob. He points it at Justin. He points it at Lindsey. He points it at Joey, who stands up in the middle of the living room and says, “Shoot me.”

As the others watch, Joey inches toward the gun.

“Shoot me,” he says again, moving closer, and he keeps saying it.

“If you’re going to shoot anybody, shoot me,” he says, and as he closes in on the man, the man begins backing up.

“Shoot me,” Joey keeps saying, and now the man is out of the trailer and putting his gun back into his waistband, and Joey is escorting him up the rutted road, and the man is walking toward the highway, disappearing into the dark, and now Joey is shaking.

He keeps shaking and is unable to stop. He tries to steady himself by sitting down on his knees. He tries to breathe. He curses.

He gets up, and as he walks back toward the trailer, he punches a tree trunk twice, hard enough to bloody his knuckles.

It's a common scene in the trailer: Kim Konzny vacuums as her son Jacob plays video games and Lindsey checks her phone. A parade of visitors to the trailer is not uncommon. “I’m so tired of these people over here, all day, every day,” Kim said.

And now it is the next day.

“I could see the tip of his gun,” says Lindsey.

“He pointed it at me first,” says Jacob.

“He said, ‘This is a 9 millimeter,’ ” says Justin.

“I thought I was about to die. I thought we were all about to die,” says Lindsey, but the emotion is drained from her voice, and from all their voices, and Lindsey goes back to scrolling through her phone, where a friend has posted a photo of a blank white flag and the caption, “Welcome to the new U.S.A. — We stand for nothing.”

Kim is in her bedroom, the door shut. Jacob is pacing around the living room, sleeves flopping. Justin is on the Xbox, and the sound of explosions rattles the walls.

When Joey comes home, he lays on the plastic-covered twin mattress where Dylann Roof once slept, and now Lindsey and Daisy lie down next to him.

“I’m wondering how I can get away from all this,” he says. “If it was my choice and I had the money? I’d have a mile-long driveway surrounded by acres of woods. Have nothing to worry about. People’d be scared to walk down the driveway it’d be so dark.”

“What time is it?” Lindsey asks after a while, but Joey doesn’t answer. He is looking at the puppy, who has been throwing up again. He’s trying to see what’s wrong.

“Baby, what time is it?” Lindsey asks again.

“7:22,” Joey finally says, putting his hand on Daisy’s chest.

He holds it there. He looks at Lindsey. He looks at Daisy. He is startled.

“I don’t feel a heartbeat,” he says, even though it is there. “How come I can’t feel it?”

Editor’s picks

An evacuated family's new crisis, far from New Orleans

The Williams family fled to rural Nebraska for the promise of a fresh start. Now they’re in need of rescue again.

A father’s initiative

Paul Gayle had no job, no money, a new baby and 16 lessons from the Obama administration to teach him what to do next.