An Ohio man with white supremacist ties has pleaded guilty to attempting to burn a church to the ground because it was planning to host a drag story hour for children, prosecutors announced Tuesday.
Aimenn Penny, 20, attempted the arson back in March, when he made two Molotov cocktails and threw them at the Community Church of Chesterland, a rural area outside Cleveland. He was arrested days later and charged in federal court.
Scorch marks could be seen on the building’s exterior walls, along with a broken vodka bottle — but the church did not burn. The storytime events took place April 1 as scheduled.
Penny was a member of a local White Lives Matter group whose members include neo-Nazis, according to an FBI agent’s affidavit. He told law enforcement that he wished the fire had spread.
Around two weeks before the attempted firebombing, he and other members of the group showed up to another drag event in Ohio with swastika flags, shouting “Heil Hitler” and homophobic slurs, the affidavit said. Penny distributed White Lives Matter flyers in an effort to spread the “word” that Black people were “the problem,” according to law enforcement.
A drag queen reads a children's book at the Community Church of Chesterland in Chesterland, Ohio, on April 1 amid heightened security.
The night before the arson attempt, Penny had gotten himself worked up by “watching internet videos of news feeds and drag shows in France and decided to attack the church,” the affidavit stated. He wanted to “protect children.”
Community Church of Chesterland Rev. Jess Peacock told Cleveland.com they were pleased with the outcome of the case.
“Actions like this need to have consequences,” Peacock told the local news outlet. “There needs to be a cooling effect to anyone who may want to burn down a church or a mosque or a synagogue.”
Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen said in a statement that “such acts of extremist violence are antithetical to core American values of freedom of expression and worship,” adding that the Justice Department “will not tolerate those who would use force to deny our citizens the free exercise of their rights.”
A search of Penny’s home allegedly turned up a “hand-written manifesto that contained ideological statements, a Nazi flag, Nazi memorabilia” along with a gas mask and gas cans, the affidavit said.
He now faces a minimum penalty of 10 years and a maximum penalty of 20 years behind bars, with sentencing scheduled for Jan. 29.