Advertisement

Man sentenced to 18 years in prison for trying to burn down an Ohio church that was hosting drag story hour

An Ohio man has been sentenced to 18 years in prison after pleading guilty to federal charges stemming from his attempt in March 2023 to burn down a Chesterland church, a week before it planned to host two drag show events, according to the US Department of Justice.

Aimenn D. Penny, 20, pleaded guilty in October to one count of violating the Church Arson Prevention Act and one count of using fire and explosives to commit a felony, the Justice Department said in a news release Tuesday. As part of his sentence, he also faces three years of supervised release following his time in prison.

“This sentence holds Mr. Penny accountable for carrying out violence against an Ohio church because he disagreed with the way congregants chose to express their beliefs,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division said in a statement.

“Such acts of extremist violence have no place in our communities and the Justice Department is committed to bringing to justice those who would use or threaten violence to prevent their fellow citizens from freely exercising their fundamental rights,” Olsen said.

At the time of his arrest, the Justice Department said Penny used Molotov cocktails in an attempt to burn the Community Church of Chesterland to the ground – something he admitted in an interview with the FBI, according to an affidavit included with the criminal complaint against him.

During the interview, Penny – who the affidavit alleged was a member of a neo-Nazi group called White Lives Matter – said he “was trying to protect children and stop the drag show event.”

The church reported the damage early March 25, the affidavit said, telling police there were scorch marks on its front door and on a sign on the building’s exterior. Another sign on the southeast corner of the property had been damaged, the affidavit said.

Fire damage on the door of Community Church of Chesterland ahead of a Drag Show Story Hour at the church in Chesterland, Ohio, U.S., March 31, 2023. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart - Jim Urquhart/Reuters
Fire damage on the door of Community Church of Chesterland ahead of a Drag Show Story Hour at the church in Chesterland, Ohio, U.S., March 31, 2023. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart - Jim Urquhart/Reuters

Investigators found broken glass pieces from a vodka bottle and a beer bottle, each containing a cloth-type material, per the affidavit. A burnt matchstick and a blue plastic spray bottle filled with gasoline were found near the damaged door.

Investigators received a court order allowing them to collect historical location data from Penny’s cellphone after receiving a tip, the affidavit said. During a search of his home, authorities found a Nazi flag and memorabilia, a gas mask and gas cans, among other items.

“This defendant tried to burn down a church simply because its members created space for and provided support to the LGBTQ+ community,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in the Justice Department’s Tuesday release.

“The Justice Department will vigorously investigate and prosecute such senseless, bias-motivated violence against people exercising their constitutionally protected right to practice their religion and express their beliefs.”

‘Stronger as a congregation and community’

The church still went ahead with its events, a drag queen story hour and brunch, the following weekend, its minister, Rev. Jess Peacock, previously told CNN, adding it was not the first time the church had been targeted.

While the church wanted Penny to be “prosecuted to the fullest extent” to discourage attacks on houses of worship, Peacock said the congregation forgave him.

In a Facebook post responding to news of the sentencing Monday, Peacock wrote that Penny’s actions “while driven by hate and ignorance, compelled hundreds of people and organizations” to reach out offering donations and support, “encouraging us to stand firm in the face of anonymous people who would rather fear difference than live compassionately.”

“You wanted to spread fear and hate, but you actually managed to make us stronger as a congregation and as a community,” Peacock wrote. “Even if you were successful in burning down our building, you would have still failed. Because it’s only a building. But we are a community.”

CNN has sought comment from Penny’s attorney but has not received a response.

CNN’s Kia Fatahi and Liam Reilly contributed to this report.

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com