Police in the city, 200 miles south-west of Washington DC, were last night interviewing a 27-year-old white "handy-man", Robert Michael May, whom they accuse of carrying out the murders.
May was arrested without a struggle yesterday afternoon, 11 hours after the estimated time of the killings, after police tracked him down to a friend's home about a mile from the scene of the crime, and surrounded the building.
The victims, two women and three men, all white, were found in a small, run-down, apartment near central Roanoke by police. The men, two of whom were shot in the back, were stacked on the floor, said Lieutenant William Beason, of Roanoke Police Department. None was carrying weapons.
The motive for the killings was unknown although May - who lived near the apartment - had "admitted the offence", said Lt Beason. Detectives say that an acquaintance of May's has said that he stole a loaded semi-automatic handgun from him shortly before the attacks.
There appears to have been a struggle, although investigators found no evidence of a break-in: a fridge was partly overturned, and a microwave oven was discovered on the floor. Police named two victims - thought to comprise a couple who live in the apartment and three visiting friends - as Dale J Arnold, 36, and Susan Lynne Hutchinson, 44.
The deaths cast a gloom over New Year's Day festivities in Roanoke, an industrial city of around 96,000 residents where there were only four murders last year. "This is a lot of deaths to have in one day," said Lt Beason. "People will be shocked because this is normally a very quiet community."
A woman who lives below the apartment said she called police when she heard shots and smashing sounds. "They were playing music loud, typical New Year's stuff," said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I thought it was firecrackers at first,but then I heard glass breaking. There was crashing and popping, crashing and popping."