An Ohio man pleaded guilty yesterday to violating the Church Arson Prevention Act and to using fire and explosives to commit a felony, all in connection with his attempt to burn down a church because of the church’s support for the LGBTQI+ community.
According to court documents, on March 25, Aimenn D. Penny, 20, of Alliance, made Molotov cocktails and drove to the Community Church of Chesterland (CCC), in Chesterland, Ohio. Angered by the church’s plan to host two drag events the following weekend, Penny threw two Molotov cocktails at the church, hoping to burn it to the ground. Through Penny’s guilty plea, he admitted to using force through fire and explosives, intending to obstruct CCC congregants in their enjoyment and expression of their religious beliefs.
Penny was arrested and charged earlier this year with violating the Church Arson Prevention Act, one count of using fire to commit a federal felony, one count of malicious use of explosive materials and one count of possessing a destructive device.
“Attempting to burn down the Community Church of Chesterland for their support of the LGBTQI+ community is reprehensible,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. “There is no room in this country for such bias-motivated violence and terror, and the Justice Department will continue to protect all Americans in their free exercise of religious beliefs by vigorously prosecuting those who target houses of worship. Our churches should be safe havens for all people, not sites subjected to violence motivated by hate and vitriol.”
“Mr. Penny admitted to attempting to burn down a church because he did not like the way congregants chose to express their beliefs,” said Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen of the Justice Department’s National Security Division. “Such acts of extremist violence are antithetical to core American values of freedom of expression and worship and we will not tolerate those who would use force to deny our citizens the free exercise of their rights.”
“By pleading guilty, Aimenn Penny has admitted that he attempted to burn down the Community Church of Chesterland because he disagreed with a planned LGBTQI+ event,” said U.S. Attorney Rebecca C. Lutzko for the Northern District of Ohio. “Violence is never appropriate to settle differences in beliefs. All members of our community are entitled to peacefully assemble, worship, and express themselves freely, without fear of violence or intimidation, and the United States Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio will aggressively prosecute criminals who threaten that right.”
“The FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force worked in tandem with our local law enforcement and community partners to identify and bring federal charges against a hate-fueled individual, motivated to violence by his extremist ideology,” said Executive Assistant Director Larissa L. Knapp of the FBI’s National Security Branch. “He committed these despicable acts in an effort to terrorize and intimidate a religious institution’s free expression, and he should face accountability for these crimes.”
Penny faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison for the violation of the Church Arson Prevention Act and a 10-year mandatory prison sentence that will run consecutively with any other prison term imposed for using fire to commit a federal felony. A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and other statutory factors.
Sentencing has been scheduled for Jan. 29, 2024.
The FBI Cleveland Field Office is investigating the case.